Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Nuclear energy promises to be the safest, most efficient and reliable source of energy in the fight against carbon-emissions and climate change. Yet there is deep-rooted opposition to it in the minds of the public and policy makers, mainly based on a dissonance between beliefs and reality. It is important for the public to transcend gut reactions, political pandering and partisanship and have balanced and sound knowledge of this very important energy source...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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Monday, October 29, 2007


Religion poisons everything. The Tehelka expose makes it clear. Because of course justifiably pointing the finger towards the Hindus is not going to solve the problem here, because they can point the finger at the Muslims in the 1992 Mumbai riots, and then the Muslims can point the finger….
It’s the same thing that goes on everywhere where there’s religious conflict, the most glaring example being Israel and Palestine, where each side can point to some historical wrong that the other side indulged in. Only religion can invoke a two thousand year old vendetta that justifies more killing. Even if the guilty are brought to justice, it’s not going to end because in every conflict, one religious faction always ends up causing more relative misery to the other after which that slighted faction now claims the rights to bludgeon the first faction...and so it goes on ad infinitum.

As always, religion poisons everything.


Sunday, October 28, 2007


As I have mentioned before, I highly disapprove of the phrase "atheist literature", because it makes it sound like just another politically fashinable school of thought that advocates its own beliefs which have nothing necessarily to do with reality. In any case, I thought I would summarise some of the books from this "genre" that I have read in the past one year. I would heartily recommend every one of them, for different aspects.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason- Sam Harris If you want to read only one book related to faith and atheism, read this one. There is no other book that I have read which so clearly and eloquently illustrates the fundamental nature and problems with faith as an instrument for enforcing ignorance, bigotry and clan mentality. Religious faith is the most pernicious kind, but Harris nails the bizarre nature of all kinds of dogmatic faith, that makes religious people believe in things they otherwise would never believe without evidence. Religious faith causes a strange and instant mental severing from reality that has been approved in society. Harris also talks about why "religious tolerance" is a utopian myth and how religion by its very nature cannot really be "tolerant" in the true sense of the word; on the other hand, Harris also makes it clear that some religions are more rigid than others and needless to say he focuses on Islam as one of the most rigid ones. In future chapters, Harris also distinguishes between religion and spirituality, the latter being open-minded while the former is essentially close-minded faith without evidence and further questioning. Harris is trained in neuroscience and explores psychological aspects of faith not found in other volumes. This is a fantastic book, one which is astonishingly insightful and revealing about the basic nature of faith.

The God Delusion- Richard Dawkins Ah, the book which everyone has been talking about. Nobody can say it as well as the British, and even among the British Richard Dawkins is a unique pugilist. All his arguments about religion are highly entertaining and spot on. Especially his point about how religious indoctrination of children is tantamount to child abuse is profoundly worth pondering. He also explores possible evolutionary bases for religion and faith. While I agreed with essentially everything he said, his style may put off some people who are on the fence. But for "closet atheists", it would be a great initiation.

God: The Failed Hypothesis- Victor Stenger This is clearly a book written by a scientist. Stenger who is a Professor of Physics at the University of Hawaii treats God as a scientific hypothesis. He then thoughtfully and carefully sifts throught the evidence and without rhetoric, comes up with the conclusion that even giving people who believe in God the benefit of doubt does not prove their basic belief in a supernatural deity. This is an important point; God enters the turf of scientists and scientific investigations only when religious people invoke him to interfere in people's daily lives, cause miracles and heal the sick and wreak destruction by way of natural disasters on people who harbour homosexuals, atheists and liberals. Stenger's book is a gentle but no-nonsense scientific exposition on God, and was written because religious people seem to invite such books by believing in an interventionist God.

God is Not Great- Christopher Hitchens Clearly the most delightful book of the lot! His words and scalding criticism are nothing less than delicious. As a reviewer once said, Hitchens is a national treasure and no atheist including Dawkins entertains us so much when debating with a bunch of daft conservatives or religious people. Hitchens does not give a whit about feelings, and his courteous insults are nothing less than hysterically laughter-provoking. Hitchens is oblivious to the expected insults hurled back at him and is always ready with a terrific rejoinder. Nobody I have seen has stood up to his gentlemen's slander, and few have the linguistic capability to do so. Hitchens also explores the social and political aspects of religious faith better than any other author. For him, Jerry Falwell was a "little toad" who would "pinch his chubby flanks everyday and chuckle at how he fooled people yet again". Simply priceless. Thank God for Christopher Hitchens.

Letter to a Christian Nation- Sam Harris Another gem from Sam Harris. In this slim volume, Harris explores the problems with the Christian religious right, and through sound and rational reasoning convinces us that all these pious individuals who for instance argue against abortion and stem-cell research, want to have nothing to do with actually alleviating suffering and misery. With their rants against stem-cell research, they actually consign the life of the countless stricken with serious diseases like Parkinson's to an early grave and much misery, while with their mindless railings against abortion, they deliver a life of suffering to millions of slighted women and their unwanted children. If there's any evidence of religion causing immense harm, it's right here in these two instances involving the Christian right. An eloquent and riveting little book.

Finding Darwin's God- Kenneth Miller This is not per se a book about atheism; in fact it is by a Christian who goes to church every Sunday. But Ken Miller is an unusual Christian who has testified against other Christians' beliefs in landmark court cases, including the famous Dover case of 2005. He is a biologist and one of the foremost opponents of intelligent design (ID) and I cite his book because it is the clearest and most devastating rebuttal of ID and defence of evolution that I have come across. The second part of the book involves Miller trying to convince us that faith and science are compatible and while he makes a few good points, he lost me there. But the book is worth reading for the first part alone, where Miller single-handedly demolishes all the pseudosceintific advocates of ID like William Dembski and- always great to hear from him- Michael Behe.

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Friday, October 26, 2007


I am amused by Vladimir Putin's comparison of repurcussions of the proposed US missile shield being possibly akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the analogy sounds laughable and Putin is increasingly seen as no friend of democracy, the amusement is because whatever the reason for his ramblings, they make sense.

I am a little amazed at how more people in the US are not speaking up against the missile shield which will clearly roil the region and US perceptions abroad, especially during this time when US popularity is already execrably low and everyone in the world is wary of any US intrusions abroad. It is unacceptable to allow the Bush administration to create more threat inflation (hardly a new American tactic) trespass on foreign territory and spend billions more of tax dollars by citing some ludicrous future threat about North Korean and Iranian missiles, while small terrorist groups and homegrown terror continue to thrive and remain the primary threat. I think the Iraq war is as much of a travesty as can be incurred for taxpayers' money and it should be appalling that the administration wants to go gung-ho on more national security rhetoric and weapons spending.

I have already talked about the sordid and expensive history of US missile defense as well as its misguided purposes and technical infeasibility. What's even worse is that in the presence of short range missiles launched from ships near the US coast (a much bigger possibility than ICBMs), the proposed missile system will be even more farther than the previously proposed National Missile Defense system, thus being unable to protect the nation. In this particular case, physicist Richard Garwin has penned an insightful article in Scientific American that's worth reading. Garwin is an eminent scientist, protege of Enrico Fermi who worked on the hydrogen bomb, and a distinguished and dominant voice in four decades of US military and science policy. He reiterates the points above:
"What is more, the primary missile threat to the U.S. is not ICBMs. If a nation such as North Korea or Iran is intent on attacking an American city, it is far more likely to do so using short-range missiles launched from ships near the U.S. coasts. In a press briefing in 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld noted: "Countries have placed ballistic missiles in ships--dime a dozen--all over the world. At any given time, there's any number off our coasts, coming, going. On transporter-erector-launchers, they simply erect it, fire off a ballistic missile, put it down, cover it up. Their radar signature's not any different than 50 others in close proximity." Despite this acknowledgment, however, the Defense Department has no system planned for deployment that could defend against these missiles."
What I always feel is ironic and tragic is that in the midst of all the proposals of the Bush administration to increase national security, not only is American credibility being further eroded in the world and taxpayers' dollars being sapped from valuable domestic programs, but the country is actually becoming less safe than before because of the misguided policies and perceived belligerence of its government.

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David Horowitz is a bonafide right-wing philosopher and political writer who is well-known for his opposition to ideas which he does not like. Who else can write a book endorsed by Pat Robertson named "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America" and also "How to Beat the Democrats and Other Subversive Ideas", that seems to be straight from an Orwellian world to me. He was at Emory University yesterday to give a talk. Unfortunately I was not aware of this and did not go. But what happened apparently was that a group of students protested loudly even before his talk began and in fact did not allow him to speak at all. The incident was covered- surprise- by Fox News among others.

This is sort of silly, and I have reiterated this point about Ahmadinejad at Columbia too. Either you invite someone and allow them to talk, or do you don't invite them. But inviting them and then prohibiting them to speak at all is conduct unbecoming of those who epitomise themselves as the lofty upholders of democratic ideals. Just kidding. It's just plainly silly. I don't think there was anything wrong in protesting Horowitz; I dislike him as much as any of critics. But now that you have had your chance, allow the man to speak. Let freedom of speech be two way (even if perhaps 80:20...). Isn't free speech about allowing precisely those people whom we despise, to express their views? Heavens of heavens, I am with Bill O'Reilly on this one (although for very different reasons naturally)


Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Nigeria my dear country is a prime example of the inferiority of the black race when compared to other races. Let somebody please tell me whether it is a manifestation of intelligence if a people cannot organise a free, fair and credible election to choose who will lead them. Is it intelligence that we cannot provide simple pipe-borne water for the people? Our public school system has virtually collapsed. Is that a sign of intelligence? Our roads are impassable. In spite of the numerous sources that nature has made available to us to tap for energy to run our industries and homes, we have no steady supply of electricity. Yet electricity is the bedrock of industrialisation. When you agree with the school of Watson, some say you are incorrect because all these failures are a result of poor leadership. Why must it be us blacks who must always suffer poor leadership? Is that not a manifestation of unintelligence?"
By Idang Alibi. Needless to say, irrespective of race, his comments also apply to many other countries. Indeed, when it comes to "suffering poor leadership", so many of us just love to suffer, don't we?

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


It is very important not to let James Watson's statements stifle or intimidate scientists who are engaged in investigating all kinds of differences between various races. They need our protection and support now more than ever...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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We had a chemistry professor over from a Canadian university for a talk. During lunch with him, the talk inevitably turned to healthcare in Canada. The professor ascertained that healthcare in Canada is free. Where does the money come from? From taxes of course. The interesting thing is that the Canadians are taxed heavily (around 50%) yet nobody seems to complain. As much as libertarians complain about taxes, I think the reality is that most of us won't mind being taxed as long as the taxes are used for a good purpose, even for the purpose of helping other people. Very few people in Canada complain about the fact that their taxes are being used to help other people. Why is that? The reason seems clear; in the same process, the same help comes back to them when they need it. I cannot but help see this as a sort of inverse operation of the invisible hand; people contributing to the good of others when they are ultimately contributing to their own good. Of course Canada has problems of its own, but healthcare there really seems to be a well-structured and largely excellent system, and it's better than the US where taxes go into fighting the failed war in Iraq.

In the end, the professor could only shake his head and say, "The richest country in the world, and they cannot provide healthcare for 40 million of their citizens. It just doesn't make any damn sense". Whichever way you analyse it, in the end, it indeed does not.

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Monday, October 22, 2007


Distinguished scientists including Edward O. Wilson (who for the record despised Watson before) and Richard Dawkins are now coming to James Watson's support. I suspect that the gut reaction that surfaced right after he made his statements obscured any kind of objective reasoning and patient analysis, as often happens with such socially explosive issues. Nobody can say that he had every justification for saying what he did, but more are now rallying to his side and denouncing his dismissal from Cold Spring Harbor and the cancellation of his lecture at the Science Museum. I have already stated my opinion in the last post; while the lecture cancellation was probably more aimed by the Science Museum at avoiding bad press, his dismissal from Cold Spring was unwarranted. One interesting point of view says that he in fact should have been allowed to appear at the Museum and quizzed in detail about his statements.
Robin McKie in the Guardian reports:
"In the end, Watson decided to return home, so no meetings occurred, a move that has dismayed many scientists who believed that it was vital Watson confront his critics and his public. 'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation,' said Richard Dawkins, who been due to conduct a public interview with Watson this week in Oxford.

Nor is it at all clear that Watson is a racist, a point stressed last week by the Pulitzer-winning biologist E O Wilson, of Harvard University. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson originally described Watson, fresh from his Nobel success, arriving at Harvard's biology department and 'radiating contempt' for the rest of the staff. He was 'the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,' Wilson recalled. 'Having risen to fame at an early age, [he] became the Caligula of biology. He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.'

That is a fairly grim description, to say the least. However, there is a twist. There has been a rapprochement. 'We have become firm friends,' Wilson told The Observer last week. 'Today we are the two grand old men of biology in America and get on really well. I certainly don't see him as a Caligula figure any more. I have come to see him as a very intelligent, straight, honest individual. Of course, he would never get a job as a diplomat in the State Department. He is just too outspoken. But one thing I am absolutely sure of is that he is not a racist. I am shocked at what has happened to him.'
I especially find Wilson's remarks revealing, because Wilson has always been known to be a compassionate, fair and objective scientist who would be loathe to offer unabashed support for pet ideas and people. I have read several of his books and never have found him to be biased or narrow-minded. I think that him saying something like this about Watson, a man who was his bete noire for years, surely says something. And Wilson's depiction of himself and Watson as the two grand old men of American biology is quite accurate. The two grand men made a rare appearance on Charlie Rose quite recently.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007


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Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Richard Rhodes is perhaps the foremost nuclear historian of our time. His past two books (among many others on extremely varied subjects) on the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are landmark historical studies. But as readers of those books would know, they were much more than nuclear histories. They were riveting epic chronicles of war and peace, science and politics in the twentieth century and human nature. In both books, Rhodes discussed in detail other issues, such as the Soviet bomb effort and Soviet espionage in the US.

In this book which can be considered the third installment in his nuclear histories (a fourth and final one is also due), Rhodes takes a step further and covers the arms race from the 1950s onwards. He essentially proceeds where he left off, and discusses the maddening arms buildups of the 60s, 70s and 80s. One of the questions our future generations are going to ask is; why do we have such a monstrous legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the earth many times over? The answer cannot be deterrence because much fewer would have sufficed for that. How did we inherit this evil of our times?

Much of the book is devoted to answering this question, and the answer is complex. It involves a combination of paranoia generated by ignorance of what the other side was doing, but more importantly threat inflation engendered by hawks in government who used the Soviet threat as a political selling point in part to further their own aims and careers. It is also depressing to realise how in the 50s, when the Soviet atomic bomb programs were still relatively in their beginning stage and the US had already amassed an impressive fleet of weapons, opportunity was lost forever for negotiating peace and preventing the future nuclear arms debacle that we now are stuck with. Rhodes details a very interesting and disconcerting fact; every US president since Truman wanted to avoid nuclear war and was uncomfortable about nuclear weapons, yet every one of them had no qualms about increasing defense spending and encouraging the development of new and more powerful weapons. It was as if a perpetual motion wheel had been set in motion, oiled by paranoia and deep mistrust, not to mention the clever manipulation of ambitious Cold Warriors. In the 50s, hawks like Edward Teller influenced policy and exggerated the threat posed by the Soviets, when in fact Stalin never wanted any kind of war with the US.

Later, this role was taken up by people such as Paul Nitze who admittedly was the "father of threat inflation". His job and that of others was to exploit the uncertainty and fear and turn it into a potent force for justifying the arms race. Into the 60s and 70s, Nitze gathered around him a cohort of like-minded people who included today's neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They wrote reports that tried to argue against detente, and advocated further and more powerful arms buildups. In the middle of this politicking, it seems a wonder that presidents could negotiate treaties such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the NPT. Reading accounts of these people and their clever spin-doctoring and manipulation of the threat, one cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu, since it's largely the same people who inflated the threat of WMDs in the Bush administration, as well as much else. What can we say but that public memory is unfortunately short-lived. Reading Rhodes's accounts gives us a glimpse of the birth of today's neocons, who have wrought so much destruction and led the country down the wrong path. Rhodes deftly recounts the workings of key officials in both governments, and how they influenced policy and reacted to that of the other side. He also has concurrent accounts of economic and military developments in the Soviet Union, and how channeling of funds towards defense spending created major problems for the country's growth and development.

However, the major focus of Rhodes's book concerns the two principal characters of the endgame of the Cold War and their lives and times; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rhodes paints a sensitive and insightful portrait of Gorbachev, as a man who was a reformist since the very beginning when he was a minister of agriculture. Rising to high positions from humble and trying beginnings, Gorbachev realised early on the looming menace of the arms race and its impact on his country's development. He tried sensibly to negotiate with Reagan's administration to cut back on nuclear arms. He could be compassionate and sympathetic, but also a very good politician. Rhodes's portrait of Reagan is less favourable, and Reagan appears to be a complex man who harbored complex and sometimes puzzling ambitions. On one hand, he was a man who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and end the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, he was a naive idealist who sometimes thought of himself in messianic terms, thinking that God had a special role for him in the Cold War. Rhodes rightly compares some of Reagan's thinking to religious thinking. Reagan quite bizarrely encouraged tremendous defense spending (more than the earlier three presidents combined) and massive and dangerous weapons developments and military exercises. Rhodes's account of the NATO military exercise named Able Archer in 1983 which almost spurred the Soviets to ready a nuclear strike speaks volumes about Reagan's belligerent policies, particularly strange given his "other side", which eschewed nuclear conflict. An intelligent but not particularly intellectually sophisticated president, Reagan liked to hear about policy more in the form of stories than reports, and because of his relatively poor and unsophisticated background in issues of national security had to depend on his advisors for insight into these issues.

These advisors, especially Richard Perle and others, persuaded Reagan to stall negotiations with the Soviets, whose main insistence was that that he give up his dreams of SDI or "Star Wars", a costly space-based weapons system that was clearly going to engender more animosity and arms buildups. This system was not just threatening and unnecessary, but would not have even been technically effective. Again, one cannot help but think of the Bush administration's flawed insistence on missile defense systems. Reagan refused to back down on this central point in negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva and Iceland, mainly advised by Perle and others. Egged on by false hopes of security through SDI, he squandered important opportunities for arms reduction. In the pantheon of presidents trying to reduce Cold War nuclear threats and curtail weapons development, Reagan is surely the biggest offender. However, it is also not fair to blame him completely; clearly his hawkish advisors played a key role in policy making, even while his more moderate advisors struggled to find a way out of the madness. Ronald Reagan was a complex character, and a comment by Gorbachev, if perhaps a little too critical, accurately captures his personality; Gorbachev once said that he would love Reagan as a dacha neighbor, but not as president of the US.

In the end, it was largely inevitability that ended the Cold War. In this context, Rhodes also dispels some myths about it. One of them, cleverly used by conservatives these days, is that it was Reagan who was the principal instrument in ending the Cold War. Rhodes makes it clear that it was Gorbachev who was instrumental. Allied with this myth is another one, that the US drove the Soviet Union into the ground essentially by bankrupting them, as if that somehow almost points to a clever strategic decision by Reagan to increase his own arms spending to induce the Soviets to increase theirs. But this myth is also not true. The Soviet Union carried the seeds of its downfall inside itself since the beginning, and the fruits of those seeds were beginning to show since the 1970s. Gorbachev recognised this, and it was largely the economic situation in his country and his own actions and realisation of the inevitability of affairs that ended the Cold War. Reagan in fact may have slightly prolonged the Cold War, and he certainly made it more dangerous towards the end with his idealistic visions of more security through wondrous weapons building. He also made negotiations much more difficult by constantly casting Soviet-US relations under the rubric of good and evil, piety and godlessness, and by smooth talking rhetoric and debate. Robert McNamara has said that our immense nuclear legacy arose from actions, every one of which seemed rational at the time, but which ultimately led to an insane result. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the epitome of a US president who had his own remarkable but largely flawed internal rational logic for justifying enormous nuclear arms accumulation.

Throughout the book, Rhodes's trademark style shines through; meticulous research that envelops the reader, remarkable attention to detail and internal logic, a novelist's sense of character development and the retelling of key events,- such as his gripping account at the beginning of the book of the Chernobyl tragedy that exposed many of the Soviet Union's weaknesses and contradictions- cautious and yet revealing speculation, and narration that instills in the reader a rousing sense of history and human nature. He gives sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of the deliberations and meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. As in his other books, he liberally sprinkles all accounts with extended quotes and conversations between key participants, thus giving the reader a sense of being present at key moments in history. I have to say that this book, while very good, is not as engaging as his first two books, but it nonetheless is solid history and storytelling, and a chronicle of one of the important periods of the century, a period that influences the world to this day.

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Susan Blackmore's quips on Watson and academic freedom. Particularly sensible is this:
Surely a society based on denying a possible truth is not a healthy one. If there are such differences we need to be absolutely clear that they do not mean that some groups are intrinsically inferior, superior, or more or less deserving. If it is true that children of different races, by and large and on average, differ in their abilities, then we need an education system that encourages and develops all those varied abilities rather than one narrowly and rigidly based on glorifying the particular kind of intelligence and academic achievement that comes more easily to the dominant group."
I am not so sure that cancelling his lecture at the Science Museum was uncalled for; I see it more as an angry rap on the old man's hand. On the other hand, I now am agreeing that suspending him from his CSHL job does not serve much of a purpose, and reflects badly on respecting academic freedom. After all, institutions have been known to distance themselves from their employees, especially academic ones, and most people don't equate institutions' opinions with those of their employees. For example, should MIT fire Noam Chomsky because he has sometimes espoused what some have claimed as radical and bigoted views? Of course not, and here the issue clearly is about academic freedom. If Lehigh University can simply get away with putting a disclaimer on their site distancing themselves from Michael Behe (whose creationist leanings are much more crackpot than even Watson's, if not as offensive-sounding), then why can't CSHL?

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


It is important to try to have a nuanced analysis of the recent James Watson issue...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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Friday, October 19, 2007


Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the flagship that James Watson took charge of and steered for more than 40 years, has now disowned him. I cannot but help feel sad at this development, not because it is unfair to Watson (what does he have to lose at this point really?) but simply because it had to end this way. Watson on his part has apologised and is said to be baffled at how people could react to his comments this way. Unfortunately this is not a valid apology. Again, even giving him the benefit of doubt, he of all people must have known that people most probably would take the comments the way they did. The comments would smack of racism to any reasonable thinking person.

Nigel Hawkes has a perceptive short commentary on race and intelligence. He makes the important point that while IQ differences indeed exist between people, they are first of all highly disputed and unreliable, and more importantly do not say anything about individual worth. There is a pretty big difference between simply acknowledging that differences in abilities do exist among individuals (which is a given) and attributing certain difference to entire peoples. Even scientifically proving that all Indians score less by 15 points than Japanese on some internationally accepted IQ test does not prove that I as a person won't be as "smart" in life as a Japanese person. When someone claims that all Africans have less IQ, it is as much a claim about individuals as it is about race, a contention that is totally unfounded. His last statements are especially noteworthy.
"All people deserve equal treatment. But that is not quite the same as saying they are all equal. The error comes in taking a group difference, which may or may not be real, and using it to judge the worth of individuals. That is racism."

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Thursday, October 18, 2007


James Watson has turned from provocative and scientific to racist-sounding and irrational. A pity...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Dinesh D'Souza is an Indian-born conservative in the US who has written best-selling books. Last night, he appeared on Fox news for an interview about his new book "What's so great about Christianity". This book promises to be entertaining as it purportedly provides "scientific" explanations for Christian theology and faith.

However, as D'Souza himself claims, the book is also supposed to be a rejoinder against what he sees as bestselling "atheist literature" by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and most recently Christopher Hitchens.

I have not read D'Souza's book and don't think I want to read it (although I would love to read some critical reviews of it). But there is one criticism he heaped on atheists about which he is quite wrong. He quotes atheists' frequent assertions that while the worst murderers of history including Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were atheists, they did not kill in the name of atheism, while religious bigots such as those participating in the crusades or more infamously the Inquisition killed in the name of religion. D'Souza seeks to demolish this viewpoint and calls it "ludicrous", particularly referring to Dawkins's book. He said that of course, it was the godlessness of the Communists that led them to these unspeakable crimes.

But D'Souza is clearly distorting the picture here. Consider the fact that most of the tens of millions of people killed by Stalin were simply not targeted because of their religious faith. What about the greater than one million people who Stalin's secret police (NKVD) targeted under the supervision of the human monster Lavrenti Beria? These included intellectuals such as scientists and teachers who were not religious. What about those millions whose farms were taken away and then collectivised, leaving them to starve to death? Most of these arrests and brutalities had nothing to do with religion, but were fuelled by deluded communist ideas of people working for the state. The same principle applies to the gigantic famine orchestrated by Mao.

On the other hand, while the Spanish Inquisition did not kill as many people as Hitler or Stalin (a point which D'Souza emphatically and constantly makes), there is no doubt that every single one of the Inquisition's victims was killed directly because of his differring faith, or who at least was labeled as such. The Inquisitors clearly classified their victims as Catholics and non-Catholics, just as fundamentalist Muslims classify all non-Muslims as infidels. They targeted these victims expressly because of their non-Catholicism. But Hitler and Mao, while they may have targeted some people because of their religion, did not target everybody only because of their "lack of atheism". There were myriad other factors responsible for their excesses.

Finally, and I am always amused by this, the cults of personality that these bigots established around themselves were no different from those around religious leaders, and social anthropologists may not find it too difficult to classify the two in the same tradition of blind faith. This, the "religion-like" ideology of Hitler and Mao if anything makes the case against religion even more pervasive.

D'Souza is not only on frail territory, but on non-existent one here.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007


A couple of days ago, I had a post about Bjorn Lomborg's appearance on Bill maher. Now Amit has a post on Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Prize in which he cites, not surprisingly, the climate change skeptic who has probably the most proven track record of being a global warming contrarian in the last decade. I am again appalled at how Lomborg, who claims that global warming proponents are "alarmists" and are enunciating half-truths, himself seems to not care too much for nuance and the big picture. His report in the Boston Globe is worth quoting here at length because of the multiple weaknesses it exposes:
"Gore told the world in his Academy Award-winning movie to expect 20-foot sea-level rises over this century. He ignores the findings of his Nobel co-winners, who conclude that sea levels will rise between only a half-foot and two feet over this century, with their best expectation being about one foot. That’s similar to what the world experienced over the past 150 years.

Likewise, Gore agonizes over the accelerated melting of ice in Greenland and what it means for the planet, but overlooks the IPCC’s conclusion that, if sustained, the current rate of melting would add just 3 inches to the sea-level rise by the end of the century. Gore also takes no notice of research showing that Greenland’s temperatures were higher in 1941 than they are today.

The politician-turned-moviemaker loses sleep over a predicted rise in heat-related deaths. There’s another side of the story that’s inconvenient to mention: rising temperatures will reduce the number of cold spells, which are a much bigger killer than heat. The best study shows that by 2050, heat will claim 400,000 more lives, but 1.8 million fewer will die because of cold. Indeed, according to the first complete survey of the economic effects of climate change for the world, global warming will actually save lives."
There are several things wrong with his statements. However, instead of pointing them out, I will simply link to the relevant post on Realclimate, which is a now well-recognised (even by the IPCC) and authoritative website manned by eleven bonafide climate scientists, including Michael Mann who produced the now-famous "hockey stick graph". The realclimate post refutes in addition to Lomborg's objections, all 9 points raised by a British judge a couple of days ago in declaring Gore's movie unworthy of screening in schools. Clearly, Lomborg needs to check multiple sources instead of just pouncing on a discrepancy or two, and then simply quoting it without investigating it further.

But what really irks me about Lomborg is that while he is right that issues and solutions need to be prioritized, he downplays the impact of climate change yet again. Also, as I mentioned in a past post, why not get all that funding for infectious diseases (which by the way are also expected to go up in some quarters because of climate change) from the war in Iraq? Also, in saying that "Gore also takes no notice of research showing that Greenland’s temperatures were higher in 1941 than they are today", Lomborg engages in a fallacy that the Bush administration is famous for perpetuating- cherry picking data and quoting it selectively to support one's claim (well-documented in Chris Mooney's book for example). Lomborg should know that this ploy is now old and boring, and we are not going to buy it.

Now let's get to what Lomborg cites as the "good" effects of global warming, about it helping cold regions. This is again a standard argument advocated by climate change skeptics. But this argument not only sets up a straw man, but is downright disingenuous. At the very least, it completely neglects the fact that climate change is a complex issue, and when its effects are unpredictable and violent, any perceived "good" side-effects can only be incidental benefits whose goodness may be far outweighed by so many things we don't know. But mainly, this argument is disingenuous because it shifts the focus from combating root causes of climate change to side-show benefits that we may (or may not) possibly scrape from it. And it is yet again cherry picking because it focuses only on one effect of climate change, neglecting the other deleterious ones.

Finally, disagreement between a couple of points does not make Al Gore and the IPCC "strange bedfellows". Science is a procss of constant inquiry, skepticism, and the perfection of data precisely engendered by disagreement. As Gore himself has noted, disagreement about details does not preempt the fundamental paradigm of global warming. Lomborg not only raises disingenuous objections, but also does not seem to understand this basic feature of scientific consensus. Far from being strange bedfellows, Gore and the IPCC are ideal ones.

Global warming skeptics need to pick a new poster boy if they possibly can for their views. Lomborg is unfortunately toeing the same line, and it's not working.

Previous posts related to global warming and climate change: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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Friday, October 12, 2007


It should be a resounding slap in the face of global warming contrarians and political opportunists, now that Al Gore and the IPCC have won the Nobel Peace Prize:

"for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

Now of course, that does not mean all our problems are solved, and that policy will now proceed smoothly. Fox News and others will still find good excuses to discredit the prize. They will probably even say that the prize makes Al Gore an even richer man while the rest of the world grows poorer (Update: As expected, Gore will contribute all the money to climate change research, so take that Fox). They will also speculate about the gratuitous lobbying that went on in their opinion in the deliberations. In addition, falling back on Gore's personal lifestyles is an argument which they could never let go of. Whatever.

The prize was expected and it's probably not very surprising even if a happy circumstance. There are still miles to go before we bring carbon emissions under control though, and even if we stop today, many deleterious effects will continue to be observed, and curbing those effects is going to be a complex scientific and political process. In fact, the prize also does not mean that climate change is now suddenly fully understood. But this is at least a partial vindication.

What I feel happiest about is not just that the Prize was awarded to Gore and the IPCC, but that it was also awarded to those thousands of scientists, who starting in the 1950s travelled to the farthest reaches of the planet to drill ice cores, document effects on sea level, snow cover, wildlife habitats and human populations. It's also a big thank you to those like James Hansen who have tirelessly worked in the face of political suppression to build computer models and relentlessly weed out the uncertainties (especially those caused by forcings). In fact, in my opinion Hansen himself deserved this prize, but it may been unfair to some other scientists.

Awarding one half to the IPCC for "building up" the scientific background of climate change and the other half to Gore for "disseminating" this knowledge seems like an apt split. The IPCC has constantly published reports since 1989 on climate change. It's latest report in 2007 was an encapsulation of cutting edge research and the most current conclusions it has drawn, which have not changed substantially from the 2001 report. The main contribution the IPCC has made between the two reports is to weed out uncertainties caused by "forcings"- factors including artificial ones like fossil fuel emissions and aerosols and natural ones like volcanic emissions that can either increase or decrease global temperatures. The problem previously was that some of these factors, especially those decreasing temperatures, had large uncertainties and so their potential balancing impact on CO2-induced warming could not be evaluated well. However, much progress was made between 2001 and 2006, and in its latest report the IPCC concluded that the "negative" forcings were much less than what was needed to counter the "positive" forcings. An important apparent discrepancy between ground measurements of temperature and satellite readings in the atmosphere was also resolved in the 2007 report. I would strongly suggest reading the IPCC summary. Anyone who reads it and still strongly suspects global warming needs to have immediate access to a dictionary and the mental asylum.

It is also gratifying that an Indian scientist, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri who is the head of IPCC is included in the prize. Interestingly, Gore was not very happy with his appointment eariler.

This is the first Nobel Prize for climate change as such, but it should be noted that one was given earlier for Chemistry to scientists who discovered the destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs. That research was a resplendent example of how science can starkly reveal the effects of human activities on the environment and force everyone to reconsider their way of life.

On the political front, George Bush and his yes-men can now do nothing more than concede to the grim reality of climate change, although it will be hardly surprising if they still don't. A couple of months ago, Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and endorsed the 2007 IPCC report and human contributions to climate change. As Chris Mooney points out, he could have done exactly the same thing in 2001, when much of the science was equally well-known. But politicians and especially the current administration thrive on uncertainties in a perverted manner; while scientists thrive on uncertainties because they will improve understanding, politicians thrive on the same uncertainties so that they can cherry pick and try to discredit the entire enterprise.

The beauty of science however is that it always continues to progress, through mistakes as well as triumphs, and this is a fact which thwarts even the most powerful politicians' motives. Even if men in power can score temporary political points by discrediting science, they forget that science has simply retreated beyond the stage, where it continues to march on through the tedious work of dedicated scientists. This exact same principle applies to any other heavily politicised scientific debate, including the nonsense about creationism. As the eminent biologist Francisco Ayala says in his book about evolution, it does not really matter for science if creationism is taught in schools or whether anyone thinks evolution is a conspiracy, because research in evolution will always continue to advance our understanding irrespective of policy. Biological research on homosexuality will continue oblivious to the debate about gay marriage. Research on the benefits of stem cell therapy will continue oblivious to whatever veto the President enforces. Science will continue to thwart the contentions of conservatives about life beginning at conception. Science does not and will not care about the vagaries of politics and spin. And the heart of the reason for this inexorable flow of science is that while politics is about the affairs of humans, science is about factual truths about the world. Its course may be temporarily modified or even stopped in the rare circumstances where unreason triumphs over all (such as in the trial of Galileo), but we can be more than rest assured that since discovery is a process inherent in the history and future of the world, this process will never ever abate. Not just this prize but all vindication of climate change is a vindication of the character of science which will always progress, and we should be thankful for those scientists who keep on quietly working behind the curtains on this progress.

So there is it; the first Nobel prize for climate change. In my eyes, the biggest vindication more than anything else has been about the science. People should yet again be convinced now that the science, with all its uncertainties, is still founded on a solid basis, and this in fact goes to the heart of understanding the scientific process itself. Let's hope that the prize causes even more public awareness than before, especially on an individual basis. Combating climate change will involve changing human nature a little, and that seems impossible. But as Spencer Weart says in his excellent book on global warming, CFCs provide a good example of how humans can change deeply-rooted practices and profit making in the face of impending problems. Global warming is a bigger problem. It will just take bigger efforts. I don't see why we cannot do that.

Previous posts related to global warming and climate change: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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Friday, October 05, 2007


A recent and highly promising trial of an HIV vaccine has failed and shown depressing results. This setback reminds us of how complex a problem HIV/AIDS is, with so many daunting scientific, economic, political and sociocultural ramifications...

Read the rest of the post on Desipundit...

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Thursday, October 04, 2007


I am reading Lawrence Wright's fascinating Pulitzer winning "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" and while I will review the full book later, one thing that jumps out at me is the simple fact, now so much reiterated by people like Ron Paul, that bin Laden was never particularly polarised towards America until after the Gulf War, and what got his goat was the presence of Americans troops in the Gulf. In fact, considering that he was so anatgonised even towards Iraq when they occupied Kuwait, it should not be difficult at all to understand what his reaction would be when the US now occupies the same land that Iraq had occupied for so many years. Al-Qaeda was initially formed as a counter-Soviet group, designed to mainly carry on the work that they started in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. It was only when massive numbers of US troops stepped foot into Saudi Arabia that bin Laden got irked. Even after this event, he came close to becoming a relatively peaceful religious man in Sudan. But it seems that what rankled most at this time was the fact that American troops had overstepped the time limit which Dick Cheney had promised the Saudis, and now were establishing permanent stations in Arabia. His earlier religious convictions and anti-Americanism now got honed into fanaticism and murderous thoughts. It was around this time that bin Laden turned into the Osama bin Laden that we all know, despise, and fear.

Americans really need to understand the history of their country's involvement in other parts of the world and its repurcussions. Debating whether this involvement was necessary or good or bad is important but really misses the point, which is just that these involvements have consequences. The point is also not whether bin Laden's anger and further actions were justified; of course they were not. The real and simple point is that when you disturb an anthill, be prepared for the ants attacking your home. That's what is happening with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, and with Central America, all of which are nations in whose politics the US has dabbled in and interfered after the Second World War. All Americans need to know is that there are going to be consequences of this foreign policy, irrespective of whether one may agree with it or not. While the right wingers trying to erect a straw man and criticise people who understand this fact as having said that the attacks on 9/11 were "justified" is total rot, equally disquieting are people who think that bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Ahmadinejad sprang from nowhere. Nobody is saying that any attack was justified, but everyone needs to understand simply that the probability of any such attack went up after the Gulf War. Considering the astonishing admission by veteran war documentary maker Ken Burns that many young Americans think that America sided with Germany against Russia during World War 2, it however would be tragically unsurprising if they don't understand the geopolitics engendered by the Gulf War.

It must be really disconcerting and truly heartbreaking for the few sane people in the political arena and the intelligence agencies who predicted such consequences and whose warnings were not heeded, to say "I told you so". I cannot but help think that George Bush has set up the entire world for a long-lasting bloodbath, the signs of which are just beginning to show.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007


On his blog, Abi pens an excellent post analysing the incentives that should be offered to lure faculty to Indian academic institutions. While some of these sound utopian to me, we can all ardently hope that at least some of them will be put into practice. In addition to these points, I would like to point out two additional points which others have raised before:

1. The burgeoning Indian Scientocracy: I don't know who originally coined this word- scientocracy, but I read it first in an editorial in Current Science by Prof. P. Balaram, a very distinguished Indian scientist and now director of IISc. Balaram was referring to the grand old esteemed men and women of Indian science, who now occupy very important scientific and administrative posts. Balaram noted that these men constitute some kind of meritocracy of science (hence scientocracy) in which only a select few are welcome, and which is more or less treated like any other class system with bottom feeders having to wait for favours until eternity, and frequently having to become sycophants of these granddaddies of the establishment. If you are not in their "in"circle- a position that often is claimed by years of dedicated worship at their feet- you may not have access to the most important posts, decisions, and most importantly the biggest funds. I have heard this complaint from some very good scientists, who say that these big shots control the funding and don't make it unambiguously and objectively available to those who deserve it across the country.

This scientocracy riddles the Indian research and educational scenario at every level, not just the national level. The worst of this group are nothing more than languorous walruses, sapping away valuable air in the department, expanding their girth on creaky comfortable chairs, directing their minions in undergraduate labs with totalitarian splendour, doing no research, and terrorising students in their classes. Years of therapy may not be enough to ameliorate the harm that these evil old men have done to young minds.

Membership in the scientocracy is largely a function of "contacts", but sadly and surprisingly, it can also sometimes be a function of other factors such as "family contacts", regionalism, and the ability to suck up. Most sadly, this also happens more often than it should inspite of the candidate being scientifically competent. In the Indian scienticracy in a nutshell, there is scarce room, if any for young, upstart, brilliant Turks who challenge the heirarchy. I have talked to many students, and for some reason, I find this problem to be a common factor in their disdain of wanting to get a faculty position in India. There is a scientocracy in the US too, but its influence seems to be radically less compared to India. Naturally, the Indian scientocracy has spread its tentacles wider in certain fields compared to others, but in any case, unless the influence of this class heirarchy is vastly bridled or abolished, wanting to be a faculty member in India seems to be largely an unplesant thought for apiring would-bes.

2. Fly high and then sigh: A point, interestingly again enunciated by Balaram a few years ago, which I have often belaboured before. Let's not aim to sprint before we can even stand. I won't reiterate the points, but would just stress that in the absence of basic, red tape-free and efficient infrastructure, no amount of advanced million dollar instrumentation is going to foster the growth of Indian science. If anything indeed, it may and does conjure false dreams for many.

3. Watch your temper: Always a grudge in my opinion. Science is not about principles learned in textbooks and laboratories, but a way of thinking. The age of reason is being eroded not just in India but throughout the world, and we need to rejuvenate such enlightened thinking in our country. Foster this basic culture of scientific temper, critical thinking and questioning, and you will go far. This again is related to the Indian Scientocracy, members of which can quickly muzzle such questioning if it comes from novice greens who may be considered a threat to the establishment. Also, lack of scientific temper directly impacts bright students who gravitate away from the sciences and to other disciplines. This, as Abi states, directly affects the will of potential faculty members whose publications are directly a result of motivated and sincere graduate students. Constantly being looked down upon during their college years does not help these students.
Consider what happened in the US after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The next decade may have been probably the most exciting time to be a science student in the country. Not only did the government pour money into school and college science, but there was this sizzling scientific atmosphere all around (if only for the sake of beating the Soviets) that propelled young minds into plumbing the depths of science and fundamental engineering. The glorious space age in the US was a direct result of this boost. I cannot help thinking that perhaps we need some such uncomfortable impetus to encourage such an atmosphere in our country too.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

9/11 IS OVER

Before 9/11, the world thought America’s slogan was: “Where anything is possible for anybody.” But that is not our global brand anymore. Our government has been exporting fear, not hope: “Give me your tired, your poor and your fingerprints.”
Good stuff by Thomas Friedman

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Bill Maher perfectly echoes my own sentiments about the whole inane Ahmadinejad debacle. Either you invite him and allow him to speak, or you don't invite him. Period. Why invite him and then subject him to vitriol? That's a complete waste of time; you were already doing it ad nauseum in the media. The way I see it, Columbia University president Bollinger decides to invite him, then is faced with this ridiculously overinflated backlash from people and the press, so then he decides to get all tough and vindicate himself in the eyes of everyone by badmouthing and insulting Ahmadinejad during the session. So silly.

I think the backlash was overinflated because everyone was insulting him before anyway. And in my opinion, it is all the more silly because knowing Ahmadinejad, what was he going to say differently during his speech that was going to lead to some great revelation? All his bluster about the Holocaust and Israel are, as Maher says, mainly political selling points. He was going to at most make some weak and ineffectual excuse and deflect criticism. Nothing was going to change either because he came to America, or because people asked him tough questions during his "talk".

As usual, the only thing that came out of the whole pony show was more massive revenue for the media. What a waste of time.

And of course, it is another quite foregone conclusion that the media and especially the right wing media is simply using Iran as a straw man to beat their war drums, when the real and more serious sources of terrorist activity are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

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