Saturday, November 29, 2008


A lack of basic equipment is inexcusable

As the Mumbai attacks draw to an end and as we all keep on feeling stunned, horrified and helpless, for some reason one question more than others keeps making me feel outraged and keeps on riddling my mind- Why didn't those courageous NSG commandos who fanned out in the Taj have any maps when they went in? As they stormed the complex hotel full of a maze of corridors and rooms, they were immediately at a disadvantage since the terrorists knew the hotel inside out. As the leader recounts in this interview, the commandos stepped in the dark without any maps and were confronted with gunfire and hand grenades coming from all directions. In addition, the terrorists knew the hotel well enough to vanish in the middle of an attack and resurface elsewhere. Can we imagine police in New York City not having any maps of the Waldorf hotel if terrorists take over it?

As if lack of maps did not erect enough barriers, the commandos also did not seem to have night vision goggles which would have been invaluable in these circumstances. Another report lists the lack of high-quality rifle telescopes that would have helped far-away snipers to distinguish between hostages and terrorists and possibly take the terrorists out cleanly from a distance. And all this before we even get started on the relatively late response, the dearth of advanced firearms in the hands of local police, and the already existing great difficulty that the commandos faced of making out hostages from terrorists and convincing hostages that they themselves were not terrorists. To me it all sounds atrocious.

The thorniest situations are usually described by an analogy involving looking for a black cat in a dark room, a cat that might not even be there. This scenario comes close to that most absurdly nightmarish of all scenarios. Shouldn't there have been at least a few copies of maps of major hotels in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation? Would it have been too much to ask that maps for a major city building not just be confined to the custody of people inside the building itself? When we see a team of top commandos getting ready to storm a building besieged by terrorists even in Hollywood blockbusters, one of the first things we see is the leader or someone else pulling up a map and intensely scrutinizing it with his team on top of a car hood or on the ground. This is not fiction. It should be basic preliminary protocol and basic common sense. Not having access to equipment as fundamental as maps, night vision goggles and high-quality rifle scopes is an insult to our army, police and special operations personnel and it makes me want to barf.

There is only one thing more disturbing and heartbreaking than watching a superb team of well-equipped operatives trying hard and failing to quickly finish off a terrorist operation. It is to watch a top team of brave operatives rush into an operation without being well-equipped. Especially the sort that should have been essential and readily available. Systems which do not provide such basics should be abolished and cast into the bin of antiquity. Our brave men and women deserve this much, even from our lackadaisical and spineless political leaders.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


As the horrific attacks on Mumbai are still in their last stages, I keep on worrying about only one scenario; a nuclear weapon detonated on Indian soil, perhaps in Mumbai. The thought makes me shudder and lose at least a little sleep at night.

Several top analysts in the US such as Graham Allison and Joseph Cirincione have identified kinks in the US security system, especially in border security, that would make it possible for terrorists to use a nuclear weapon on American soil. Allison thinks that a nuclear attack of some kind and magnitude on US soil may already be overdue. If that's the case with the United States which is still one of the most relatively secure places in the world, one can only imagine that the scenario would be much worse in India.

It is very difficult to overestimate the effects of a weapon with even a 1 kiloton yield- a dismal yield by any standards- in a city like Mumbai, irrespective of the time of the day. A more typical scenario usually talks about a 10 kiloton weapon, but as in other such scenarios, it's always best to be as conservative as possible and then extrapolate to worse cases. Now, the 20 kiloton bomb in Hiroshima killed at least 100,000. Mumbai's population is an astounding 20 million compared to Hiroshima's 300-400,000 at the time of the atomic bombing.

Let's imagine a macabre scenario for a second in which a extremely watered down 1 kT bomb was detonated at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the same location where the terrorists began their killing spree. Extensively depending on the conditions including structures of buildings, wind patterns, road traffic, presence of combustible material and other variables, such a blast could essentially level most of the buildings in the Fort area (within a radius of 1 km or so), including all the famous hotels which the terrorists targeted. There would be almost total and instant loss of human life within this radius, probably numbering in a few thousands right there and then. Those who were not directly struck by the shock wave would be obliterated with shards of flying glass, metal and construction material. Given enough combustible material around, thermal radiation from the blast could also start fires, the effects of which were historically neglected in some such studies. Such fires could seal the fate of people trapped in buildings, many of whom will be seriously injured to begin with. Farther from the blast, prompt and delayed radiation would bathe people and property for miles, essentially shutting down the financial part of the city including the BSE for at least months. The effect on the economy would be devastating.

A dirty bomb detonated in Mumbai with materials like strontium 90, cesium 137 or the infamous polonium 210 would limit the (still significant) blast and thermal effects to the conventional explosive used to package the radioactive material, but the radiation effects would still kill or incapacitate thousands, render large swathes of real estate inhospitable for years, and at the very least severely cripple the financial and commercial sector of the Indian economy, a consequence whose aftereffects themselves would be disastrous in several ways. Similar effects of varying magnitude would be visible in any other of India's biggest or second-biggest cities. Dozens of well-known and loved names spring to mind; Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Pune, Trivendrum, Jaipur and Varanasi to name a few.

The above scenario discussed a weapon with an embarrassingly low yield. There are 'suitcase' nuclear weapons small enough to fit in a backpack with yields from 1-10 kilotons. Even by the most abysmally conservative estimate, at least 100,000 people could die in Mumbai from the immediate (blast, radiation, thermal) and delayed (radiation) effects of such a 'small' 1 kT explosion. A more typical 10 kT weapon would extend the above effects to at least Churchgate, Grant Road, Marine Lines and Girgaon. The death toll from such an explosion could be 500,000 or so, more than twice the total number of people killed by the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Either the former or certainly this would be a number beyond imagination and a catastrophe beyond comprehension. It will create complete chaos in the country, and the resulting civil strife and riots might kill thousands more.

Sadly, what's really frightening is that smuggling in a small weapon with a 1 kiloton yield could be cakewalk for terrorists. This is not fear-mongering or paranoia. Weapons-grade uranium, especially when concealed beneath common and heavy tamper and shielding materials, can be extremely difficult to detect by most conventional radiation counters (Weapons-grade plutonium which has a higher energy gamma and neutron radiation signature is easier, although still not trivial). It would be relatively easy to detect such uranium if suspected containers could be leisurely inspected over a period of several hours. It is quite a challenge on the other hand to detect such a bomb among the thousands of containers that rapidly flow across India's borders every single day. Considering that Mumbai itself handles 50% of India's maritime traffic, this becomes a weapons detection nightmare. India's long sea and land borders thwart this attempt even more, the same way they thwart it in the US. And it goes without saying that once inside the country, the high population, facile movement of goods across state borders, immense network of road and train networks and the inadequacy of security at all these routes and points would make it virtually impossible to detect such a weapon. Being of similar appearance, language and culture, the terrorists who escort this deadly device would seamlessly blend in among the population, most of which is busy securing its own square meals to be vigilant.

Nor would it be impossible to obtain such a weapon in the first place, even though this would probably be the most challenging task of all. Analysts have estimated that the price of a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon in the black market may be about 10 million dollars. Based on the quality and yield, this price could possibly drop down to 2-5 million dollars. It is not very difficult for networks like Al Qaeda to secure such a weapon and then, even if they don't use it themselves, auction it off to eager bidders who would carry out both their own objectives as well as that of Al Qaeda's. Evidence suggests that Al Qaeda has already courted Pakistani scientists about nuclear know how as well as material once or twice (Cirincione, 2006). B. Raman in a heartfelt essay worries about the fate of our nuclear materials and weapons and loses sleep over it. I think he should lose even more sleep over it because as far as I know, our own nukes and materials are not the most attractive target for terrorists. The most lucrative weapons raw materials and perhaps weapons themselves have been thought to be loose nukes in the former Soviet Union (Allison, 2004). There were roughly 20,000 nukes in the Soviet Union around the time of its demise. Assuming that only 1% of these nuclear weapons failed to be secured, it still means that an alarming 200 are unaccounted for. Even one weapon among these with its yield degraded would be enough to cause the above catastrophe. A slightly more benign but still volatile scenario exists with Pakistan's nukes.

For now, terrorists have taken the even more easier way out of using conventional weapons and crude tactics. These crude tactics killed 'only' 125 and have shaken a city and nation's soul. The event has left us even more stunned and disturbed because of the sheer viciousness, bravado and efficiency of the terrorists. We better not even try to imagine what it would be like with a crude nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. Mr. Prime Minister, no more words; we already know as much as you do what you want to convey to us. We need action now.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008


At least 80 100 apparently killed. This is really horrific, and the extremely well-coordinated and extensive nature of the attacks is stunning and very disturbing. Apart from the Taj Hotel and the Oberoi Hotel, Madam Cama Hospital has also been apparently targeted. A group which has the embarrassingly juvenile name of the 'Deccan Mujahideen' has taken responsibility for the attacks. The ubiquitous Lashkar-e-Toiba is also not far away from accepting responsibility. The situation is still tense, with several hostages being held by the terrorists in the two hotels. I hope everyone who reads this is ok.

Several top police officers have been killed in the operation. One of them, Hemant Karkare, was the head of Mumbai's Anti-Terrorism Unit. I cannot for the life of me figure why Karkare put his life on the line at such a crucial moment. While I feel deeply about his sense of sacrifice, I found it highly disconcerting to see photos of Karkare dressed in a simple shirt and trousers supplemented by a bulletproof vest and helmet just before he went in. Wouldn't it have been much more useful for Karkare to direct the operation when his crucial guidance was needed? Sacrificing one's life for the country may be a noble endeavor, but it's unfortunately not always necessarily the most effective one. Karkare was also involved in investigating the Malegaon blasts and his expert advice will now be sorely lacking in that investigation.

It's interesting that some officials from the US State Department are calling this a "game changer". I am thinking they are saying this because of many reports, not entirely substantiated, saying that the terrorists targeted people with US and British passports. Perhaps an unintended beneficial side-effect of this tragic incident may be increased cooperation and coordination between US and Indian intelligence agencies, if only to protect US citizens in India. India certainly might benefit from such cooperation in its own fight against terrorism. India is in dire need of surveillance and sound intelligence to track and stall terrorist movements. I am usually not paranoid about terrorist attacks, but with all the talk about terrorists detonating a dirty or conventional nuclear weapon in the US (itself predicted by many analysts to be an impending event), I am much more worried that they will find it easier to do this in India.

I personally also wondered what, if any, could be the relation between these attacks and the upcoming election. I sometimes get the feeling that such attacks could be a possibly sound way of undermining confidence in Congress when it comes to national security. People's confidence in the government has already been eroded by the rather weak and ineffective response by the government after the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings, as well as its servile pandering to minority groups. Increasing the frequency and intensity of such attacks could achieve two goals for the terrorists; get rid of the current government, and possibly help to bring in a more Hindu fundamentalist faction which may make it easier for them to garner support, generate propaganda and recruit new supporters.

Finally, I would like to hear an explicit statement from our honorable Mr. Singh, something to the effect of "I don't care whether the people behind this are Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. I want all of them brought to justice by any and every means possible". Then of course we will expect him to act on these words; comprehensively and objectively beef up security and prosecute those responsible without thinking about political correctness. But for now, it would be quite a revelation to hear him express something other than the usual trite boilerplate bleating.

Update: What's up with CNN? Those in the US would have noticed the remarkably uninterrupted coverage on the new channel that has been going on for more than 24 hrs. I don't every remember CNN covering an Indian terrorist crisis so extensively and continuously. Maybe this time Americans and tourists were involved. But I think that such coverage could also possibly reflect the increasing importance that CNN thinks India plays on the US foreign policy stage. One of the most far reaching effects of this crisis could be for the US to join India in putting intense pressure on Pakistan. Clearly a destabilized Pakistan supporting terrorist activity in India is going to increasingly a headache for the US.

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Monday, November 24, 2008


For many days now I wanted to pen my thoughts on what I think about libertarianism. This is mostly because I find myself often agreeing and disagreeing with libertarians. Many people who call themselves libertarians are my good friends and so these conversations are frequent and interesting. But somewhere I have to constantly ask myself which "ism" I belong to. While I never like to label myself any kind of "rian" or "ist", the expediencies of taking a position inevitably mean that one has to at least slightly lean towards one side or the other. But most of the time I find myself alternately taking sides. This does not mean I am confused but it just means that I alternately favor one viewpoint or the other based on the times. I personally think that political positions should be fluid, like dressing for the weather. The correct response should not be either-or but should consist of changing proportions of ideologies depending on the environment. I humbly think that that this position is a safe one since it at least endeavors to remind you of trying to stay unbiased, even if in practice you cannot. So here's a short account of some very simple thoughts about this matter that I have. These thoughts don't constitute any argument against libertarianism nor any sophisticated critique, lest my friends immediately rise up in arms against me. It's more a general documentation of arguments and discussions that I have had and what I have thought about them. More simply, it's a set of ramblings that I get to indulge in because this is my personal blog.

Let's begin with acknowledging that most sensible people who are not extremists are libertarians to some extent. That is, most sensible people will agree that people should be free to live their own lives in whatever way they deem appropriate, and that government should have a minimal say in their lives and decisions. First let's talk about social libertarianism. This is really short and simple, because here I am almost in complete agreement with all libertarians. I strongly oppose government intervention in matters of personal choice such as abortion and gay marriage. Leave the gay business to the gay people. I also strongly feel that, the caveats of such a policy notwithstanding, drugs and prostitution should be legal and that government should not have an authority to prosecute 'victimless crimes'. When it comes to social libertarianism, I am pretty much in lockstep with libertarian principles.

It is when it comes to economic libertarianism (not completely mutually exclusive from social libertarianism) that I start to have disagreements with my libertarian friends. Again, let's start by acknowledging that most people who have thought carefully about these matters and have a basic understanding of history will agree that on the whole, free markets rather than central command economies constitute the best system for maximizing rewards and nurturing incentives and freedom. I am for example in complete agreement that property right are of supreme importance and that such rights have been rampantly violated in case of farmers in India, both by the government and by private corporations. On the whole we need to agree and keep on arguing that free markets are best. Only self-deluded mortals (read Comrade Karat) would believe otherwise. In this context, I find close and parallels between Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Both frameworks rest on ideas that constitute simplicity itself. Both frameworks lead to propitious complexity starting from very simple principles. However, Adam Smith himself did not advocate laissez faire capitalism. Several sources document this fact. Now of course because Smith does not advocate a principle does not mean that that principle is bad. But all I ask is that the same free marketers who swear by Smith's name and praise his Wealth of Nations also pay due homage to his Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as some of the lesser known parts of Wealth which advocate government intervention in areas like education. Ideally, I think it would be better if we don't swear by anyone's name.

So then, the question really boils down to when and how much government intervention should be allowed. I personally believe that for most political camps who don't take extreme positions, this is the real issue to argue about. Libertarians just like other political camps straddle a wide range of their political philosophy, with some advocating complete and unfettered free markets and others supporting government intervention in at least some endeavors. Again, the scope and value of such government intervention can be argued, but at least you have distinguished between two sub-factions there to begin with.

No other dimension of public policy encompasses libertarians' objections to government intervention so much as paying taxes, and this has been one of the major sources of contention for me. First I would like to gently clarify a point. There is a minority of libertarians who assume that the very fact they they constantly argue against taxes of every kind means that they are taking the high moral road. By default then, anyone who opposes them and actually argues in favour of this tax or that one is advocating social coercion and has already consigned himself to Hayek's famous "road to serfdom". This is unfair and uncalled for. Just because I may think that some taxes are justified does not mean that I love freedom any less than you do or that I want to impose my will on my maid or that I am ready to be enslaved by the government. Once we have clarified this source of much outrage on my part and others, let's move on to the actual issues.

When it comes to not paying taxes, my contention is very simple. If you don't pay taxes, you don't reap the rewards. This is the famous "free rider" problem. Let's say I don't think that one government endeavor or the other is not justified and therefore I don't want to pay taxes to support it. That's fine, but then why should I be entitled to any benefits that may accrue from it? If I do think that I should be entitled to its benefits, then wouldn't I be a free rider capitalizing on other people's support of government projects? There are happily many such avenues of government-sponsored human activity where there is consensus on public support. Nobody for example would question the extensive basic science research programs that have been supported in India or the US; there most people seem to agree on some notion of 'sacrifice' that they make to support the collective enterprise. But there are many other borderline cases which are hotly argued, where the free rider problem rears its ugly head. I have not yet found a libertarian who has been satisfactorily been able to answer the free-rider dilemma for me. Now in theory I can see an answer; the system can be mutually reinforcing. That means that I should be entitled to the benefits from some government endeavor that I don't support because in turn I am probably paying taxes for some other government endeavor that somebody else does not support. However, how does one exactly break down the value and scope of these two projects which will almost certainly differ in their nature and investment returns? I believe that the problem of taxes may be resolved to a large extent once we address the free rider problem. The problem of not paying taxes to support others also has another rather unpleasant dimension to it. When it comes to healthcare for instance, many people argue that raising taxes to provide universal healthcare is 'immoral'. We won't argue about the thorny healthcare issue at this point. But let's assume that this point is justified. It won't be implausible to assume then that the poor may revolt against the rich at some point, French Revolution-style. Their actions surely won't be justified, but a system in which inequality keeps on growing simply may burst at some point. I would think that preventing such a catastrophe would be in the interests of everybody.

There is no other sphere of activity that challenges libertarian principles as much as climate change, and it is here that I probably have the biggest difference of opinion with libertarians. But this should not really be so. Let's look at the core libertarian tenet again which essentially says that both socially and economically, every individual should be free to do whatever he or she wants as long as his or her actions don't trespass on someone else's freedom and rights. However, in my opinion, climate change immediately provides the biggest exception to the core libertarian tenet. When it comes to global warming, the individual's activities do harm and trespass on the rights (air, water, land) enjoyed by other individuals in remote parts of the world. Since climate change provides a very readily seen exception to the core libertarian tenet, I personally find it wondrous that libertarians would so strongly resist government intervention in mitigating climate change since such intervention would not violate libertarian principles after all.

But let's leave aside politics here. What I found depressing was that there was a minority of libertarians who so strenuously wanted to argue against government intervention in these matters that for a long time they even refused to accept the science behind climate change. A case in point was George Reisman who wrote this completely misguided essay against environmentalism that did not soundly address a single piece of hard scientific evidence in favour of climate change (link: Chetan). This inadequate understanding and appreciation of the science and the problem leads people like Don Boudreaux to completely miss the point and write flippant articles that are supposed to reassure us that "we are not going to run out of oil". Unfortunately I don't remember any libertarian taking a strong stance against this crackpot refusal of facts in the face of massive evidence. I am sure most libertarians would not be loathe to accept objective scientific facts just because they would suggest measures that seem to violate their treasured political ideals.

Even the great Milton Friedman acknowledged that, as much as the government was responsible for the Great Depression in his controversial opinion, once the Depression set in, massive government intervention was necessary and justified. Climate change today is unfortunately in a similar precarious position. All scientific indicators and the testimony of hundreds of careful and dedicated scientists point towards this fact. There is no debate about the reality and pernicious effects of climate change. We have already passed many crucial checkpoints, if not the ultimate tipping point. Are libertarian solutions to climate change possible? In theory, yes, provided they had been suggested fifty years ago. Of course we did not know anything about global warming fifty years ago so the point is meaningless. But the real point is that it does not matter now. The great problem of our times is that we have to do something right now. Large-scale legislation to curb CO2 emissions, to improve mileage efficiency, to stop deforestation and the exploitation of fisheries, to cap sources of carbon is necessary right now. At the very least, this fact should be given serious consideration by all of us. Libertarian solutions where the market "regulates itself" may be possible in principle, and while these principles may still be applicable in local scenarios, the times are past for employing them on the stage of global affairs. A typical libertarian scenario would posit that if car companies don't have better emission standards, the public would be concerned about its health and be loathe to buy cars from them, which would set in motion the self-correcting wheels of demand and supply. The simple fact that throws a wrench in this smooth clockwork solution is that by then it will simply be too late and neither I nor anyone else would really care that the market provided a 'solution'. Also, the free rider problem crops up in such circumstances too. Consider that there are two kinds of cars, one which is cheap and pollutes and another which is expensive and clean- a pretty plausible scenario. It would be tempting to imagine that in such a case, public pressure and refusal to purchase would force the polluting car company to switch to the clean car. But not so. Since the polluting car is cheap, people would wait for other people to switch to the clean car so that they themselves could drive a cheap car as well as enjoy clean air. Again, the solution in such a case if it comes at all would be excruciatingly slow and ultimately fruitless. When it comes to human nature, no "ism" can prevail.

It's also interesting that those "socialist" Europeans understand this and have refused to listen to industry leaders who would sacrifice environmental standards for further growth. The United States is still one of the few developed countries in the world who refuses to answer the clarion call of our planet. Again, every libertarian should be bothered by the fact that it does so not just to its own detriment but to that of others, an action that violates basic libertarian beliefs. At the same time, the point about the government conveniently using a crisis of some kind to heavily enforce its regulations on people is very well-taken, and the world has seen too many cases of this. That's why we need to elect better leaders. But that's not the same as questioning the concept of government leadership itself, which whether we like it or not, is going to be necessary to solve the global climate crisis. I commiserate with libertarians when they get upset about government intervention for setting environmental standards, but we are unfortunately in one of those stages in human history where we have put ourselves in a straitjacket. We have left ourselves with few other options. This is not the best solution. It may not even be a good one, but it may be the only one.

Finally, let me say that I am in complete support of libertarians' suspicion of government. Government certainly consists of human beings who constantly invest in their self interests. It would be folly to assume that such people are altruistic. Therefore there is no doubt that we must constantly be on our guard. Having a government in power is like constantly being in a fencing game. As Jefferson famously said "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and we would all do well to keep it in mind. But the "vigilance" part of Jefferson's quote also crucially extends to the process of electing government officials, which seems to have failed us. Much is said about not trusting the "wise men" who move about in the highest echelons of power and make decisions for their flock. But we should also remember that these men were originally deemed to be "wise" because they were chosen on the basis of the wisdom of the people. If the wisdom of the people had truly prevailed, these men would be wise indeed. So perhaps, instead of constantly laying blame on them, we should simply try to make sure that we always breathe and sustain wisdom in the process of selecting them. I don't think government is the problem. I think it's the process of creating and fostering it. And it should certainly be possible to improve on that.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


And I am here to help...this time for real

The dreaded government official might now be necessary to buttress a crucial factor in the energy crisis- nuclear power. In a sad bit of collateral damage, it seems the global financial crisis might stem the growth of nuclear power- never too encouraging and strong to begin with- throughout the world and especially the US. As a Nature article reports:
The growing difficulties in attracting investment may prevent nuclear power from playing a significant role in the fight against climate change. A global energy outlook published on 12 November by the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that guides energy policy, called for an 80% increase in the world’s current nuclear capacity by 2030 in order to keep global carbon dioxide levels from rising above 450 parts per million. That would require bringing some 25 new reactors online every year between now and 2030, five times the current rate of construction, according to Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-policy expert at Harvard University. Given the bleak financial outlook and the limited production capabilities of power-plant vendors, “nuclear can no longer support climate-change needs and targets”, he says.
This is particularly sad given the new nuclear power plant designs that are based on higher efficiency, safety, economy and better proliferation resistance. Britain has for example decided to wisely double its nuclear power capacity with the goal of meeting an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases. But the financial meltdown has made some wary of this target.

The way I see this, it's pretty clear that some major policy initiatives will have to be axed because of the financial crisis. However, the credit crunch should clearly affect government funding initiatives less than private funding ones. For example, in China nuclear power generation is slated to be quadrupled through government spending, and this won't be affected as much.

Thus, with government funding for nuclear now becoming crucial, the real question is which policy initiatives the government should ax, if any. It would a very big folly as I see it to stifle nuclear and fund renewables instead. In fact what I fear is that because of the poor public perception of nuclear, private investors as well as the government might actually come forward and fund renewables, thus propelling the country and the world down a path that would not promise any significant returns in the crucial next decade for mitigating climate change and providing higher energy density. After that it might be too late.

To me the solution looks simple, even if non-trivial to implement; if the government pot of money is small but the private pot of money is smaller, the government needs to prioritized its spending, make sure that nuclear gets its fair share of investment. It's up to the government now who can really help. This would be a pretty good test for the energy policy of the Obama administration. That should make the choice of energy secretary even more important and anticipated.

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Monday, November 10, 2008


Chandrayaan was pushed into orbit around the moon two days ago and it should be a proud moment for all Indians. If there's two aspects of Indian scientific research that have progressed almost without interruption in spite of the turns in our economy and the low standards in other scientific fields, they have been nuclear energy and space exploration. Indian nuclear and space scientists have been among the best in the world for decades. And they have accomplished remarkable feats in spite of international constraints, disapproval and sanctions.

So it was a little surprising for me when some condemned the launching of our newest spacecraft as sucking valuable resources away from our strained economy and initiatives for poor people. The critics of Chandrayaan included socialists who as usual started disingenuously bleating about how we have shamelessly engaged in space exploration when our poor cannot afford their daily bread, and libertarians who complained again about how this is a waste of tax rupees. Let me say upfront that if you are really worried about tax rupees, you should look at the other failed schemes of the government, the rampant corruption by middlemen and the ambitious self-aggrandizing ventures that our noble politicians indulge in for sources of income. Just like Americans who are concerned about tax dollars should look at the Iraq War and not ludicrously at healthcare for children, ganging up on important Indian science and technology objectives is misguided criticism.

I for one think the effort to be eminently justified (I am much more skeptical about a mission to Mars though wherein the costs may outweigh the benefits). There are many reasons why I think it makes sense. First of all, it may give a boost to Indian science which continues to stagnate. We are going to face a dangerous deficit of young scientific talent after the old guard of eminent scientists such as Anil Kakodkar, K Kasturirangan, P Balaram and C N R Rao retire. The reason for the deficit is clear; no financial or government incentives for luring young people into scientific research, dated basic facilities at many institutions, a lack of appreciation for basic scientific research and a clear paucity of vision and respect for future scientific development that is going to be crucial for the country.

In the midst of this scenario, the Indian nuclear and space science establishments appear to me to be the last two strongholds of scientific and engineering excellence that still nurture talent and promise real scientific, if not financial, results. But in my opinion, being a nuclear scientist in India in the next few decades is going to be both professionally and financially attractive. Nuclear power is going to emerge as the best bet we have for supporting our booming population and ensuring rapid progress. As our talented scientists and engineers make advances in thorium and related technology, it would be only lack of visionary leadership that would thwart our efforts to be poised to become one of the world leaders in nuclear developments. I believe that the argument for becoming a nuclear scientist in India is going to be as good in the next few years as it ever was.

As far as space science is concerned, there are two clear motives for such missions. Importantly, they lead to collateral but valuable discoveries in basic science, engineering and electronics. This is in addition to their primary motives, in this case the motive being to map the moons surface and study its atmosphere. This has always been a common theme in scientific research. The Apollo space program led to many other inventions and developments that were of general benefit to society. Planning any mission like Chandrayaan involves solving a lot of unforeseen problems on the fly. Solutions to these problems can be generalized and applied in other fields. The Manhattan Project for example provided a windfall of new discoveries, techniques and inventions that benefited sciences like electronics, metallurgy, nuclear reactor engineering and even aviation (the B-52 bombers had to be drastically modified to hoist the bombs). There is no better example of the journey being more valuable than the destination than tackling a complex, important and interdisciplinary scientific problem. Chandrayaan and other endeavors must have eminently satisfied such a condition.

The second motive may sound philosophical but it is probably even more important. In a country like ours where easy money and an overall better life lures many bright minds away from the sciences, we need constant inspiration. The best analogy I can think is of Homer Hickam, whose life story became the catalyst for October Sky, the single-most inspiring movie I have seen. Homer Hickam was a boy growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia in the 1950s, where kids had no future other than being relegated to the lucrative revenue-generating coal mines. But one day, Homer sees Sputnik streaking across the sky, and from then on, he battles entrenched tradition, his father's recalcitrance and many discouraging events to finally attend college and become an engineer for NASA.

Now, Sputnik accelerated funding for science and technology and scientific education in the United States with the goal of beating the Soviets. Maybe we don't have an urgent enemy as formidable as the Soviets. But beating the Soviets was not remotely on Homer's mind when he decided to study rocket science. For him, it was the fact that someone could build an object like that, that rational application of science, mathematics and ideas could culminate in such a dazzling enterprise, that inspired him and set him off on his own trajectory towards space.

If Chandrayaan can inspire even five Homer Hickams in India, our faltering scientific education system and establishment will get a great boost. After that, all that would be necessary would be to provide these five with an infinite field of space across which to blaze their dreams.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008


There are two kinds of environmentalists. One kind which is a scarce breed consists of the ones who are willing to do cost-benefit analysis and apply rational scientific thinking based on available facts to suggest policy. The other kind, sadly even now the majority, are against nuclear power, are not averse to hijacking oil tankers to make their point, and are more concerned about the fate of koala bears than about prudent science-based solutions to climate change. These environmentalists often, but not always, include far-left anti-corporate activists. Many of them tout "holistic farming" and vague notions of glorified "scientific solutions" to the world's food, medical and environmental problems. Most jarringly, they hold many scientists in contempt and subscribe to the strange postmodernist view of science, wherein science is "just another way of looking at reality".

Vandana Shiva, who has a PhD. in physics from the University of Western Ontario, is unfortunately one of them.

Sovietologist brings one of her crazier articles to my attention. According to Shiva, the traditional reductionist approach to science is not only incorrect but responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Shiva thinks that the reductionist approach has harmed science and essentially should be side-lined and abandoned in favour of a more generalized "holistic" approach. Thrown out of the window are the benefits to billions that reductionist science has brought.

According to Shiva,
"In order to prove itself superior to alternative modes of knowledge and be the only legitimate mode of knowing, reductionist science resorts to suppression and falsification of facts and thus commits violence against science itself, which ought to be a search for truth. We discuss below how fraudulent this claim to truth is."
Shiva then helpfully rails against every application of science from medicine to agriculture to energy. I don't think it's even worth discussing the many glaring flaws and rampant cherry picking in her ramblings, but her opinions of medicine especially rankled me
Simple ailments have been cured over centuries by appropriate use of concoctions made from plants and minerals found in nature. 'Scientific medicine' removes the diversity by isolating 'active' ingredients or by synthesizing chemical combinations. Such processing first involves violence against the complex balance inherent in natural resources. And then, when the chemical is introduced into the human body, it is often a violation of human physiology.
Little does Shiva realize that by obfuscating the issue and presenting medical therapy as a "violation of human physiology" she is obscuring the fact that that's what precisely any foreign substance introduced in the body does. And by the way, perhaps Shiva has forgotten the billions of lives that "active ingredients" have saved all over the world. She gives the example of the psychoactive drug reserpine isolated from the beautiful flowering plant Rauwolfia serpentina. It was perhaps the first drug that brought dignity and benefits to countless patients of psychoses. Then, it began showing unacceptable side effects. But Shiva not only does not stress the benefits, but stops here. There is no discussion of scores of future anti-psychotic drugs which were focused on reducing these side-effects and improving efficacy. Even today we don't have the perfect drug for schizophrenia, but intense efforts continue in both academia and industry. For Shiva these efforts are trivial and even misguided.

Not surprisingly then, Shiva launches into an litany of benefits for "natural" concoctions. As with other extreme propaganda, there is a shred of truth to this contention. There is no doubt that many Ayurvedic medicines bring real benefits. However, there is merit to isolating the active ingredient from any such natural source and modifying it to reduce toxicity. That is how most drugs have been developed, by starting from an isolated natural molecule and then tuning its properties to reduce toxicity and improve potency. Shiva needs to educate herself a little about the process of drug discovery.

However, Shiva's real agenda, hidden all along, becomes clear at the end. If postmodernist leanings don't move you, compassionate socialist ones surely will:
But it is highly unlikely that medical science and pharamaceutical establishments will pay heed. For the reductionist medical science cannot but manufacture reductionist products and undermine the balance inherent in natural products. The multinationals that produce synthetic drugs in pursuit of fabulous profits and ignore their toxic side effects do not care. When they are forbidden to sell some harmful drugs in the home countries, they find a lucrative market in the third world, where the élites, including the medical establishment, are usually bewitched by anything that is offered as scientific, especially if it comes wrapped in pretty pay-offs. They give a free hand to multinationals to buy medicinal plants at dirt-cheap rates and sell the processed pills in the third-world countries at exorbitant prices and at enormous cost to the health of the people. The élites cannot accept that it would be more equitable socially, cheaper economically, conductive to self-reliance politically, and more beneficial medically for the third-world countries to use the plants locally according to time-tested indigenous pharmacology.

While multinational drug companies and the third-world political élites are out for profits, the third-world intellectual élites, eager to prove their scientific temper, join in a chorus to denounce indigenous therapeutics and related knowledge systems as hocus-pocus and their practice as quackery. It is through this mixture of misinformation, falsehood and bribes that a reductionist medical science has established its monopoly on medical knowledge in many societies.
That's right. The billions of lives that have been saved by the "elitist" multinational drug corporations are nothing compared to the virulent and rampant capitalism they have have infected third world populations with. If it's a private corporation, then by default it must be part of a global conspiracy to oppress poor people in developing countries.

As noted before, Shiva's entire essay contains too much cherry picking, straw man arguments and misleading information to criticize here. And again, Shiva tugs at the fine line between some legitimate objections to reductionist science and a full-blown irrational attack on its methods. We don't need Shiva to tell us that reductionist methods have their limitations; consider the recent emergence of fields like systems biology where scientists are trying to grapple to get a better perspective on overcoming these limitations. But no serious scientific critic of reductionist science will deny the immense benefits that it has served us since the dawn of humanity. Almost all the fruits of scientific research that we enjoy have come from reductionist science, and that will continue to be so. Disparaging wholesale the benefits of reductionist science and deriding the huge windfall of discoveries that reductionist science had bequeathed to us is a tremendous insult to the very edifice of scientific discovery. But then that's the standard agenda of the postmodernist-socialists; to contend that science is "just another way" of looking at reality and to charge scientists with having a "monopoly over the truth".

I have a simple suggestion for Shiva which I am sure she would not be loathe to accept. Next time she suffers from a deadly pathogenic infection, she should not take any antibiotic or drug manufactured by the evil companies. She should subsist on coconut water, isabgol and curd to ward off her illness. Shiva would then be truly walking the talk. Not only would she be proving her point about reductionist science doing her more harm than good and about antibiotics simply being one way among many to "look at reality", but her admirable bed-ridden efforts would be a true slap in the face of those evil multinational drug companies.

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Don't let your view of the Bush administration color your picture of reality

Usually I find myself vigorously nodding my head when I read most New York Times Op-Eds and columns. I share the Times's disdain for the Bush administration's policies and usually think they are right on spot when they criticize them. But in this particular case, I think they have let their rightly justified Bush-phobia lead to an unreasonable response.

The story is painful but straightforward. A woman was given the widely prescribed anti-nausea drug Phenergan by injection. When it did not work, the doctor opted for a riskier procedure during which his assistant accidentally punctured an artery in the woman's arm. Gangrene set in, and her entire right arm and hand tragically had to be amputated. Sneezing from a few allergies is hardly worth losing an arm.

The woman rightly sued the physician and his assistant and received a healthy out-of-court settlement. But then she also sued Wyeth, the drug's manufacturer. Why? For "failing to warn the clinicians to use the much safer “IV drip” technique, in which the drug is injected into a stream of liquid flowing from a hanging bag that already has been safely connected to a vein, making it highly unlikely that the drug will reach an artery". The trial court even awarded her a whopping 6.7 million dollars worth of damages. Wyeth has decided to appeal the case in front of the Supreme Court. The NYT supports the court's decision and objects to Wyeth's displeasure:
Now Wyeth, supported by the Bush administration, has asked the Supreme Court to reverse the verdict on the grounds that Wyeth complied with federal regulatory requirements.

We do not buy Wyeth’s argument that it did everything it needed to, or could have done, to warn doctors about the dangers involved in the treatment Ms. Levine received. Wyeth did warn of some dangers of the drug treatment, in words approved by the F.D.A., but the state court was well within its rights to conclude that those warnings were insufficient.
So let me get this straight. Wyeth is being sued because the physician did not know what was the safest and best protocol to use and because his assistant botched up the operation?

In fact here's the shocker. Wyeth does have a strong warning against such an injection on its label.
"Under no circumstances should PHENERGAN Injection be given by intra-arterial injection due to the likelihood of severe arteriospasm and the possibility of resultant gangrene"
What more do you want the company to do? Emphasize "under no circumstances" three times? Were they also supposed to say, "Do not inject this drug directly into the heart"? Did the court even read the label? I find this case outright bizarre.

Somehow the NYT also ties this event to the Bush administration's argument that companies should be protected from lawsuits if the FDA has completely approved their drug and the way it's prescribed. If anything, shouldn't the FDA be sued for not making sure that the company had all the warnings adequately written on the label here? I share the NYT's general contempt for industry-protecting Bush policies. But in this case the policy seems to make sense to me. If the FDA is supposed to be the "decider" when it comes to approving drugs, why should companies bear the brunt of failed drugs if the FDA has already approved them?

It is sad when general opinions that are justified lead to specific views that are not.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008


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Whether you loved him or hated him, there is no doubt that Michael Crichton was one of the most important technological thriller writers of the last century. In my own case I loved him through most of his career, and in the later stages, if not hated at least was deeply disappointed with his writing, both in terms of style and substance. I was a little shocked when I heard about his death and was not aware that he was suffering from terminal cancer.

Crichton entertained us through blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Congo and The Andromeda Strain. His versatility was illustrated by Disclosure which tackled a totally different kind of theme. He was also the creator of the immensely popular TV show ER, which every doctor religiously tapes but no doctor believes actually represents reality. My personal favourite of his would always be The Andromeda Strain, its anticlimactic end notwithstanding.

However, it was through State of Fear that Crichton earned the scorn of many in the scientific community. The book is a classic example of rife cherry picking, selective reporting and misleading analysis, all pitched at readers as second-rate fiction. I was furious when I read it and wrote a post. My beef with the book was not just with the woefully misrepresented science, but with an insipid and poorly-written script filled with stock characters. In fact that was what deeply disappointed me, that Crichton has lost his bearings as a writer of engaging edge-of-your-seat prose. His next novel Prey somewhat made up for all that was wrong with State of Fear. I have not yet read Next yet, which is apparently a novel about the perils of genetic patenting. But even this novel and especially his views on genetic patenting came under fire when he wrote an Op-Ed in the NYT about them. Again, Crichton at best seemed to have oversimplified an important and complex scientific matter.

In the end however, I am not going to remember Crichton by his failures but by his successes, by the feeling I got when I first read about fractals in Jurassic Park, or the wonder I felt when the lethal pathogen in The Andromeda Strain finally imploded because of the simplest of biological principles. The Crichton I would always remember would be the one who entertained, informed and showed us visions of the future.



As part of the election, I did something which I had not really planned for; I made 30 phone calls to voters on behalf of Barack Obama's campaign. I did this pretty much on impulse and in spite of not being a US citizen. But I also think that there was a genuine reason behind it. Perhaps that reason points to how important we felt this election was not just for the country but for the world. It indicates how much each of us were fed up with bullying, cronyism and irrationality, and how all of us wanted a breath of fresh rationality, honesty and compassion in the national and international dialogues of our times. Perhaps it especially demonstrated how those of us who have come to these shores with a certain image of the US in our mind wanted to resurrect that image after we were sorely disappointed with how badly that image was tarnished.

I started with registering on and noting my address. After that it was really simple. They gave me a list of tasks I could do, such as driving people who cannot drive to the polls. Since it was a little late for that, I thought I would do the next thing on the list which was really easy: call people. Call them to make sure they have voted. If they have, ask them if they considered supporting Obama. If they have not, ask them when they plan to vote. And ask them if they will strongly consider supporting Obama. If nobody is home, leave a message with the above questions and comments. If the phone number is not working, note this fact on the website. That was really it.

I had an interesting experience overall. Most of the times I either talked to people who have already voted, or left a message. In some cases I left a message with another member of the household. As I made one call after another, I understood the value of doing this. I realise that sometimes when people are sitting on the fence, a simple phone call from a campaign (and a lack of one from the other) can possibly change their minds. I guess that's what all the talk about grassroots efforts is about.

My last phone call was the most interesting of all, when I had to accomplish the difficult task of convincing someone to vote for Obama. I reached a 88 year old voter in Ohio. This man had lived through the Depression and the War. He probably was fed up with both political parties. Before I could say anything, he asked me to recite the first 7 words in the Declaration of Independence. I was completely caught unawares and hesitatingly began with the words "We the people" before quickly embarrassing myself and realizing that that was the Constitution. I had another chance to salvage my dignity, but then I realized that the most famous words of the Declaration, the whole part about all men being created equal which I did know, could not possibly be the beginning. Nevertheless I mumbled those words and got another reprimand from him. Finally he decided to give this anonymous Obama supporter (with an accent!) a last chance and asked me who wrote it. I said Jefferson and thereby barely managed to save the last shreds of my dignity. But then it got interesting. Somewhat bitterly, he asked me why he should support Obama if I did not know the Declaration. To which I falteringly answered that while I profusely apologized for my ignorance, I did know what the document stands for and I thought that its implications and ideals were more important than its exact wording. That seemed to satisfy him. I breathed a sigh of relief and wiped my brow before thanking him and hanging up, although it turned out at the end that he had already voted "at high noon" and this was probably a "test". Later I asked many of my American friends the same question, and all of them except one or two ended up citing the same lines from the Declaration or Constitution as I did. I guess they are as ignorant about Obama and what he stands for as I am!

So I had an interesting experience. But I also realized the power of grassroots efforts and the medium of the Internet. If I could so easily place 30 phone calls and out of those 30 voters if I could convince even 2 to vote, imagine what it would be for hundreds of thousands of such people around the country to constantly make phone calls days on end and talk to voters.

It may sound strange and perhaps even unpatriotic that I who have never voted in India am now contributing to a drive to garner votes in a country where I am not a citizen. In fact not voting in India when I had one chance to do it is something that I count as a failure in my life and, although I had my reasons, I feel ashamed of not doing it. In my flimsy defense, I was blissfully uninterested in politics when I was in India. This was mainly because I was too cynical about it and also because I was too interested in science and music to find time for it. My protests against politics had a ring of truth to them; what's the point of voting if all of these people are going to mess up the country anyway? But it was later that I realized that even if my disillusionment with the national political scene made sense, by not voting I was not exercising the most crucial right I have in my country, and ironically by not doing this I was not helping to improve the same situation that I had been deploring for so long. More importantly, even if none of them were good, someone has got to be better than the previous one. He doesn't need to be a paragon, he simply needs to be better than the previous one and that should be reason enough to vote for him or her.

I resent the fact that I did not vote or do such simple volunteering in India. If I am back in India at some point and can do it, I surely will. But in spite of being an outsider, I am glad I did this here on Tuesday. Perhaps it was the scientist in me that encouraged me to do this for a man who respects scientific inquiry more than many of his predecessors. It was my shout out not just to Obama but more importantly to rationality, a virtue without national boundaries.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


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Till I was about 13 or 14 years old, my readings of American history consisted only of offerings from the history of the United States during World War 2, an old and enduring historical interest of mine. It was when I picked up Harold Evans's The American Century, a superb and magisterial illustrated history of the country during the twentieth century, that I became painfully and woefully aware of the injustice that African-Americans faced in this country for two hundred years. I was horrified to read about Jim Crow, the dog squads and water hoses on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, the lynchings in Mississippi. As a boy who was about the same age then, I was especially sickened and completely shaken by the relatively recent story of Emmet Till, a story that has been vividly seared into my mind ever since.

I could not believe that this was the country enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the land which first and foremost looked at the integrity of one's character and his or her abilities and not where he or she came from. And yet I saw hope and fundamental human decency in Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. But since then, I have often felt whether any event or moment in the United States could possibly mentally transport me to a pre-Harold Evans time when I had a singularly auspicious and pristine perception of this country. Such a moment would never come because one cannot erase the scars inflicted on this country's character for two hundred years. But I feel convinced that if there would be a moment closest to such a moment in my life, that moment would be yesterday night.

At midnight, I stood on the 15th floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and amid the car horns constantly blaring on the street downstairs, I strained my ears to catch every word that he spoke on the TV screen. The overriding feeling among everyone around me was one of peace and relief and tears even more than elation.

He looked tired, relieved and happy but not jubilant. He knows the difficult task that lies ahead and knows that celebration right now is premature. He knows that there's much to be done and that this is just the beginning. He knows that he may not be able to bring about a sea change in the way things have been done. But he knows that he will nudge the country in the right direction by valuing and fostering rationality and honest debate. He knows he will be upfront and forthright about what he thinks and he understands the value of the journey, even if the final destination may not be known. He understands the value of incremental progress.

And he knows that his extraordinary story culminating in yesterday's night healed at least some of the internal divisions among his own people and will go a long way in reviving his country's image in the world as the land of opportunity, diversity and respect.

He did it. Now we have to do it. Now we can get back to our lives.

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Monday, November 03, 2008


A few weeks ago when a friend told me about Thomas Frank coming over to give a talk at the local library, I enthusiastically agreed. Frank was going to speak about his new book "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule". Frank is something of a funny man and as I sat in the first row I laughed. But as he recounted how conservatives have torn apart the moral fabric of this country and belied their own creed, I felt a genuine sense of outrage welling up inside me, as it had done so countless times before and as it would inside any reasonable person.

Then a week after that, I saw that Steven Wax, author of "Kafka Comes to America" was going to give a talk at the same library. Again I went. Again, outrage welling up in the front row. Suddenly I realized that I had felt this outrage so many times that I was becoming masochistic and getting addicted to it.

And that was the reason why I wasted so much time on politics. Over the last two years or so I have seriously spent much more time on politics than I should. I used to find myself unable to resist with pointed sarcasm and and an outrage overflow when the talk around me turned to politics. How could these people possibly be like this? I could not stop expressing outrage over these questions. I realized that that was why I sometimes watched Bill O'Reilly for "entertainment". The sense of outrage had so enveloped me over the last two years or so that I had started genuinely liking it. Sometimes outrage would knock me out in a speechless stupor and yet when I woke up I would want more of it. It's like that weird and sweet pain you feel when you bang your knee against a wall. You know that it's genuinely hurting and yet you don't want it to go away.

That's what the Republicans did to me as they did to many others. They got all those who care in this country and in the world addicted to outrage, the genuine kind and not the Sean Hannity kind. They got us wasting time and diverting ourselves from more important things so that we could repeatedly feel that outrage and relish it. I hated myself for spending so much time on politics and yet I loved it.

And that's why I want tomorrow to get over as soon as possible. I think I and millions of people everywhere have had enough of outrage. That's one of the reasons why I am going to savor Obama's win. Because I can finally start resisting the urge to keep on spending time on politics because I keep on getting outraged. And as I have said before, if McCain wins, then that would work for me too and I won't talk about politics anymore. Because then the outrage would reach such a fever pitch that my brain will finally not be able to handle it and abandon it.

In any case, it would be at least temporarily the end of outrage. Hopefully this blog could see much less politics then. This election is being hailed as historic by the country. While it indeed is, it shouldn't have been. Why does a country which considered itself the foremost promoter of freedom and equality for two hundred years have to wait until 2008 to elect a black man as president? By electing Barack Obama this country will finally secure the place in history which it has touted all along. So now all I pray for dearly is for John McCain to win Arizona.

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It was Richard Nixon who got rid of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee during his tenure, which has not been resurrected since. In the 80s, Ronald Reagan embraced the idealistic vision of Star Wars, a pipe dream that did not have a valid scientific basis. In the 90s, Congress got rid of the Office of Technology Assessment which is supposed to provide the country's political leaders with bipartisan scientific advice. Science on the whole in the last twenty five years has been on a downhill path as far as respect for it in political circles has been concerned.

Although George Bush's administration has been the single-largest malefactor of science and all it stands for and in general although Republicans have done more damage to science, all administrations since the 1970s have overall been lax and negligent in supporting science and its essential spirit. As I have written before, the issue goes far beyond the important one of providing funding for basic scientific research. It has to do with trusting unbiased advice that tries to give you a picture of the world as it is, and not how you would like to see it. It has to do with promoting and respecting open-mindedness and true bipartisan debate. Thus science has always stood opposite dogma, a fact that is usually hard to swallow for most politicians who would want to color the world with their own ideological brush. This is a wholly fatalistic attitude because a disrespect for science means an abandonment of informed decision making, eventually a sure path for a country's spiral into regress.

Barack Obama is not good for science because he is a liberal Democrat. He is good for science because he largely stands for all that science traditionally has; open minds, patient and careful thought, forthcomingness and respect in listening to dissenting opinions, a mistrust of blind reliance on authority and a willingness to listen to all sides of the debate before taking an informed decision. Obama also knows he is not perfect and embodies another key aspect of science; the ability to understand one's deficiencies and limitations and seek the best possible advice to overcome them. There is scarce doubt that he will bring knowledgeable science advisors into the White House and that he will take seriously the advice of people with whom he may not agree. At the same time he will weigh all the options and sides and try to take as unbiased a decision as he can. In an age of climate change, evolution, food crises, energy crises, drug resistance and nuclear terrorism, science is going to become an increasingly key and vocal part of the national debate and the future of this country. Obama understands this. Maybe that's why, a few days ago, 76 Nobel Prize winners represented by the great physicist Murray Gell-Mann wrote an open letter to the American people and endorsed Obama as most prudent for science in this country.

The American people need to reclaim their lost preeminence in science and technology and their respect for learning and rationality. They need to reaffirm their place in the world as the land where open minds meet unlimited resources and intellectual capital. The time has come when this land needs to save science from itself. With this in view, anyone who deeply cares about science, reason and objective thought should vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday.

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