Month: October 2010 (Page 1 of 3)

Rally Signage

According to NPR, the “great debate” in the hours before the big luau on the National Mall was whether people were coming to the rally for politics or comedy:

When Jon Stewart announced his Washington, D.C., Rally to Restore Sanity, he inspired much joy among fans of his Daily Show.

But he has also sparked a fierce debate among pundits over whether Stewart really has comedy or politics in mind for the event. It is scheduled for Saturday afternoon on the National Mall.

“I have had the growing suspicion that the participants in this rally don’t entirely think of it as a comedy show,” Timothy Noah of the online magazine Slate says. “I think that they are mistaking … participation in this rally for some sort of political statement. That confusion troubles me.”

A cursory glance at the rally signs suggested Timothy Noah is missing an important point: to blend comedy and politics. And people clearly didn’t come all for the same reason or all with the same politics.

Not that this is in any respect a representative sample, but of the signs I was able to photograph during the early part of the rally on the edge near the National Museum of Art, many in the crowd were clearly on message, alternatively affirming Stewart’s call for tolerance and civility openly or doing so indirectly with satire:

Others were clearly on Team Fear; but this crowd struck me as a mix between two sets of folk:

1) people who just like Colbert better than Stewart,

2) those who argue that the rational response to the situation is fear

A third group of people struck me as on the fence about the trade-offs associated with actually implementing the message:

There were also a significant number of people who openly rejected Stewart’s message of moderation with vitriolic signs of various sorts:

Then there were lots and lots of signs taking specific political positions. While this was not the point of the rally as articulated by Stewart, some protesters clearly interpreted it as a focusing event for whatever-your-agenda-might-be. For example, there was quite the anti-fracking contingent on the steps of the National Museum of Art (though I do not think that means what they think it means).

Also various other positions on social and political issues, often expressed with humor:

Conversely, there were those for whom “civility” appeared to be conflated with “political agnosticism”:

Finally, there were clearly many people who thought this was just a fun-fest. Camera crews at the rally consistently gravitated toward those in costume, but few of the costumes in my area had political symbolisms. Based on the interviews I overheard while trolling around, many of these folks tended to just be dressed up because it’s Halloween weekend. But there were some exceptions: these guys are running for President in 2012 and think we should be very, very afraid.

More rally signs and commentary are at TPM.

Estimates of the crowd size are still rolling in and speculation about the effects on the election next week is raging.

More than anything, I for one enjoyed getting out with my fellow Americans in the bright autumn sunshine. And overall, I was happy to see the number of people who seemed to be on message. This wasn’t a rally for a party or a platform; it was for a set of values that crosses the political spectrum and is at the foundation of our authentic political culture: deliberation. My favorite tweet today at #rallyforsanity read:

Whenever I get to feeling too proud, I remember that you, too, are an American.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


Should I go vote for women because they’re women?

Reading a recent TIME article on “Why Women Candidates are Talking Tough” inspired me to blog about the upcoming elections a little bit. While there are a record number of women candidates for national office, predictions are that women will lose ground in representational terms. If women pick up any ground (or even don’t lose it), it is predicted to be GOP women winning seats and Democratic women losing them. With so many unappealing women to vote for (whose names I’ll leave off this blog post to be polite), and so few appealing women to vote for … what’s a progressive, Democratic, pro-choice woman to do?

The easy argument (and what I’m likely to do) is to vote with your political preferences. But in the rest of this post, I’ll make an argument for voting for every woman you can, regardless of political preference.

I realize that this sort of behavior is exactly what people think feminists do (that they don’t) that gives feminists a bad name (unjustifiably), but I think it might be an important thought experiment anyway.

So the argument against voting for women just because they are women is that it doesn’t make any sense to vote against your political interests in a democracy, and doing so in effect is voting against one’s political interest. Another argument against such behavior is that feminists argue that the category “woman” is in itself false and problematic.

Conceding both of those things … what if the election (nationally and locally) is already lost to the political cause of those of us who are progressive, pro-choice democrats?

The United States falls below the world average of women’s representation at every level of government – there is a woman-majority parliament in Rwanda, and dozens of places around the world where women constitute more than 35% of the parliament or Congress. In the United States, it is less than 20 percent. Women are drastically underestimated in gubernatorial offices and the cabinet, and there has never been a woman president.

This is not incidental – it is symptomatic of systematic gender bias in the United States. It is no coincidence that women are drastically underrepresented – our ideas about what it means to be a leader correspond to masculinity (which women must constantly prove while men are assumed to have it). Still, women leaders must be “as manly as men” (so they can’t cry) while maintaining their femininity (so they can’t be too aggressive).

Waiting for these masculine (and therefore secondarily male) biased gender rules to disappear is like trying to find atlantis. So how do you get involved to end it? Maybe the answer is to vote for women. Because the more female faces we see in office (regardless of political preference, assuming, in 2010, that’s predetermined), the more we have to confront our underlying gender biases in definitions of leadership and voting habits. Maybe? Or maybe we’ll just lose a lot of women’s rights ground at the same time …


Zombie NATO? Or, the Poverty of Realism

A great many bloggers and policy wonks, motivated by the upcoming Lisbon Summit, are weighing in on NATO’s future. NATO faces a number of challenges and difficult issues, including:

While opinions differ over the health of the alliance, I’ve been particularly struck by the weakness of Steve Walt’s arguments for why NATO is headed for membership in the society of the walking dead. He isolates three major reasons for his negative assessment: Afghanistan, defense cuts, and Turkish foreign policy.

Today Walt reported the results of a debate he held in his MA international relations class (“NATO Lives!”), but reiterated his belief in NATO’s growing irrelevance:

Here the three big wild cards are 1) The effects of the latest round of European defense cuts (which will make out-of-area actions even more difficult in the future), 2) The lessons that NATO draws from the Afghan War, and 3) The rising importance of Asia. If Afghanistan is eventually seen as a successful operation that produced a positive result, then NATO’s value will appear to be reaffirmed and support for it is bound to continue. If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all. And if it’s not performing some sort of global policing duties, then what is it for? Finally, as the Asian balance of power starts to loom larger in everyone’s consciousness, NATO’s relevance will almost certainly decline even further. NATO may be willing to give the United States some modest assistance in the Gulf or in Central Asia, but it is hard to imagine Europe doing much of anything in some future conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Indeed, they’d be more likely to stand aloof and trade with both sides.

As Walt himself notes, he’s been beating this drum for some time; indeed, realists have been proclaiming the death of NATO since at least the end of the Cold War. Their fundamental reasoning lies in an understanding of alliances as balancing coalitions; with the passing of the Soviet threat, NATO’s purpose disappeared. Since then, NATO has searched for a rationale: policeman of Europe’s turbulent frontiers (e.g., the Balkans), democratic security community, global rapid reaction force, etc. Realists are predisposed to view each of these purposes with suspicion anyway, and every piece of evidence that they’re fraying provides, for realists, another nail in NATO’s coffin.

None of these arguments are ridiculous. NATO has significant problems. The contemporary shift of power from Europe to East Asia does, in some respects, make NATO less important to global politics than it was during the Cold War. And nothing lasts forever–at some point not only will NATO disappear, but so will most contemporary political institutions.

At the same time, Walt’s reasoning seems a bit off.

First, Turkey. I simply cannot understand why he places so much weight on recent Turkish overtures in the Middle East. After discussing disagreements over Iran and Israel, he writes:

Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO’s largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

Walt doesn’t explain why the size of Turkey’s military matters. For what it is worth, Turkey currently contributes less than two percent of ISAF’s total forces. Its contributions to other operations–e.g., IFOR, SFOR, and KFOR–have varied widely, but none of these NATO missions depended on a Turkish military presence. But even putting aside Turkey’s significance in recent NATO operations, it isn’t at all obvious why the size of Turkey’s military makes Ankara’s dispositions more important to NATO cohesion than, say, London’s, Paris’, or Berlin’s.

Obviously, NATO would face additional problems if major rifts opened up with Turkey on issues of substantive importance to the alliance. Indeed, Turkey does disagree with other important members over tactical nuclear weapons and conventional arms control. But it isn’t at all clear what kinds of NATO actions a more “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy would preclude. If the US strikes Iran, it won’t be as part of a NATO operation. If the US deploys forces in support of Israel, it won’t be part of a NATO operation either.

Second, ISAF and defense cuts. Walt’s arguments on both these fronts reduce to the same claim: the future of NATO out-of-area operations looks grim, and thus NATO will be deprived of a key rationale for its continued “vitality.”

In fact, current defense cuts make clear NATO’s ongoing importance to Europe. By co-binding virtually the entire Atlantic and European Community, whether through direct NATO integration or the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, NATO has created an unprecedented security community. Every major power (save one) on the continent has interoperable military forces linked together via multiple consultative and coordinative mechanisms. As Walt’s students correctly noted, NATO has greatly diminished the likelihood of security dilemmas, arms races, and military instability within its borders.

NATO not only plays a key role in mitigating the pathologies realists associate with anarchy, it also continues to serve a deterrence function–most notably with respect to the Russian Federation. NATO membership, or lack thereof, makes a major difference to the strategic environment faced by former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Moscow would, for instance, enjoy significantly more influence Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if the three had remained outside the alliance.

NATO security guarantees also structure, for the better, current European and US engagement with Moscow. They have done so not only by, for all intents and purposes, eliminating the threat posed by Russia to the most forward-looking NATO advocates of extensive political-military engagement with Moscow (e.g., Germany and France), but also by reducing Moscow’s ability to play divide-and-conquer games in Europe. It isn’t so much that Moscow doesn’t play those games now (it does), or that it hasn’t enjoyed important successes in doing so (it has). Rather, without NATO’s co-binding institutions and practices, Moscow’s wedge strategies might well be pulling Europe apart.

Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical, this state of affairs has been a net positive for the Russian Federation. A more realpolitik environment in Europe, even one driven, in part, by Moscow’s power-political influence, would greatly undermine Russian military and economic security. Indeed, Russia’s long-term ability to meet the challenges posed by a rising China depends on stable, predictable, and friendly relations with its major western neighbors.

Yet Walt’s line of reasoning reduces all of these effects to little more than the shamblings of a Zombie. If NATO fails to send expeditionary forces abroad, cannot come to a consensus on Iran, or plays no role in a future Taiwan straits crisis, then it is “irrelevant.” What could possibly account for such an assessment?

The answer lies in Walt’s theoretical commitments–in particular, realism’s jaundiced view of international structure. By this I do not mean, as most constructivists argue, that realists pay inadequate attention to culture. Rather, realists lack adequate appreciation for the ways in which political and social ties–including alliances–texture international relations. They see international politics as patterned by “anarchy” and “the distribution of power.” All the rest is merely “process.” But it should be obvious that NATO profoundly structures Eurasian political and military relations, and will still do so even if its ability to act collectively further declines. Whether or not one agrees with my assessment of how NATO structures Russia’s strategic opportunities, it strikes me as difficult to argue that NATO’s impact on western Eurasia has no significance for the future of East Asian security relations. At the very least, it does so not only by shaping the political, military, and economic environment confronting Moscow, but also that of policymakers in Washington, DC.

Perhaps, then, it would be most accurate to say that whether the future includes “live NATO” or “Zombie NATO,” NATO will hardly be irrelevant to global politics.


Pork Barrel Nation: From Prisons to Pentagon

Here is a fascinating story detailing how a network of legislators and corporations works together on bills such as Arizona’s recent and controversial immigration bill.  The two-part report shows corporations and trade groups writing laws, encouraging “lawmakers” to promote and pass them, then using the legislation to expand their businesses.  In this case, prison companies–one of the few bright spots in our woeful economy–were involved in writing the Arizona bill.  Now they stand to make millions from new jails for illegal aliens, especially women and children, awaiting deportation. 
All of this was conducted through an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which disingenuously calls itself a nonprofit—and apparently has the IRS status to prove it.  After all, it’s not lobbying, it’s “educating” legislators, as ALEC’s leader states in the report.   Of course, ALEC is “educating “our representatives to support the bill prepared by its corporate members so that they can profit off of it later.  But it’s still education!
The focus of the report may be domestic, but the implications are obviously wider, including to the mother of all pork-barrelers, the military and its corporate hangers-on.  According to the Wall St. Journal, defense now accounts for over $700 billion annually, amounting to over 50% of domestic discretionary spending and an estimated 19% of all federal spending (dwarfing Medicare expenditures). 

Of course, we’ve heard talk from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the need to cut military spending.  The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has discussed this as well.  And, most fortunately, with the election next week, we are bound to see an influx of deficit-hawk, Republican legislators eager to cut wasteful spending. Right?
Not.  When pork wears a uniform, it has a thousand friends—or at least 535, the House and Senate members whose districts and states feed off the swill.  We’ve already seen pre-emptive strikes against defense cuts on the op ed pages of the WSJ.   And groups akin to ALEC are laying plans to do some “educating.”  The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, for instance, is talking about teaching benighted freshman who might somehow question whether, in an era when there are no serious military threats to U.S. national security, we must keep on spending ever more.   Nothing like bang for your education buck!


The Strategic Impact of Wikileaks

Rob Farley opines at World Press Review on the political/strategic implications of War Diarii:

Perversely, efforts to increase government transparency often have negative effect on actual secrecy policy. For example, the ability of individuals to uncover written notes from government meetings through FOIA requests or through lawsuit discovery has led to the practice of shredding notes following most meetings. Data that does not exist cannot be leaked. We can similarly expect in the future that incident reports of the type leaked to Wikileaks will become less available to potential leakers. The U.S. military collects and correlates this data in order to improve tactical effectiveness. Information about particularly effective methods, about failure, and about enemy capability spreads across units with access to the data. Because of concerns over adverse political effects, however, the military will probably collect less data, destroy more, and further limit access to what data remains.

It all sounds pretty dire, but then again Rob may just be grumpy because of this.

OK, seriously. Read the whole thing here.


The decline of American math and sciences?

I attended a forum on the math and science curriculum last night at my kids’ school and we had an interesting presentation and discussion on the general state of math and science education in the United States. Several of the parents present at the forum were math and science faculty members from Smith College and from UMass. One prominent theme was the lament that the US was falling behind China and India in the math and sciences.

One of the parents referred me to an article and data published last summer in Money magazine. A key finding:

As math and science talent accumulates abroad, companies do more of their hiring there, reducing demand in the U.S. That’s partly why undergraduate engineering majors are a shrinking proportion of the total, down from 6.8% to about 4.5% over the past 20 years. Employers then claim they can’t find engineers in the U.S. — so they have to hire abroad.

Another passage generated a sharp response from several parents:

The fastest-growing college majors in America as of 2007, says the U.S. Education Department, were parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies, as well as security and protective services.

Then this morning, Thomas Friedman’s column added another plug for the decline of American math and sciences in American education.

I’m certainly not pollyannaish on the state of math and science education in the United States. My 12-year-old son loves math and sciences but complains about “math limbo” at his school — as he puts it: “They keep lowering the bar and asking us to go under it.” OK, that may be a bit of pre-teen bravado speaking, but in the era of underfunded No Child Left Behind mandates, teachers are increasingly incentivised to teach to the state tests and discouraged from using a range of differentiated teaching techniques to meet a broad range of student interest and aptitudes.

But, my broader objection to this discussion and to the broader debate on relative decline, power transition, and the “rise of China and India,” is the failure to understand or examine the complexities and challenges that both China and India face. No one can dispute the extraordinary economic transitions and growth rates realized by China and India over the past twenty-five years. But most of the political discourse on power transition (and the lament of American decline) seems to assume linear trends over the next twenty-five to fifty years.

I’m not sure I see it that way. I co-edited a volume last year on China and it included interesting chapters by Iain Johnston and Sheena Chestnut from Harvard, by Susan Shirk from UCSD, by Cheng Li from Brookings, and by Kelly Sims Gallagher at Tufts among others, that all presented significant internal contradictions within China and questioned the viability and sustainability of current trend lines. With all due respect to the challenges facing the United States, both China and India face far greater obstacles in terms of internal political challenges and vulnerabilities, in terms of the relative disparities in the distribution of wealth, in terms of dealing with abject poverty, in terms of rural to urban migration and the subsequent social and cultural dislocations, as well as in terms of environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Given these challenges, I’m not sure I see China’s rise as inevitable — we may see it, but we may not….

All of this has implications for the more immediate discussion on the current state of American math and sciences. Prachi Patel has a nice summary of some of the contradictory indicators in last month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum Magazine (the flagship magazine of the leading professional organization for advanced technologies). She writes there remain significant quality gaps in the education standards in India and Chinese engineering programs. While students at the elite Chinese and Indian institutions graduate with skills on par with the top American students, these elite students account for only a fraction of the total graduates with these degrees:

Lower-tier colleges and universities in both India and China suffer from passive learning styles. Design and project work is typically absent, the curricula do not focus on problem solving or building project management and communication skills, and there are no internships or other work experience….

….[Vivek]Wadhwa [an executive in residence at Duke University’s engineering programming] adds that the quality of the educators is very poor, and there’s not enough depth or funding. The main problem, though, is the sheer mass of students enrolled in engineering classes. ”When you have 100 students per teacher, you really can’t get hands-on and be interactive,” he says.

The result is that most of the engineering graduates in these countries are not landing jobs nor are they fundamentally transforming their societies at the expense of the United States. I understand the instrumental claims, but we (especially Thomas Friedman) invoke(s) national security imperatives for everything these days. We should be able to discuss and address the current problems and weaknesses of math and science education in the United States without the constant drum beat of power transitions and interstate competition — especially when the analytic claims are so dubious.


Social Science: Apparently Too ‘Sciencey’ for the Iranian Government…

so says a senior Education Ministry official:

“Expansion of 12 disciplines in the social sciences like law, women’s studies, human rights, management, sociology, philosophy….psychology and political sciences will be reviewed,” Abolfazl Hassani was quoted as saying in the Arman newspaper.

“These sciences’ contents are based on Western culture. The review will be the intention of making them compatible with Islamic teachings.”

The Ayatollah added:

“Many disciplines in the humanities are based on principles founded on materialism disbelieving the divine Islamic teachings,” Khamenei said in a speech reported by state media.

“Thus such teachings…will lead to the dissemination of doubt in the foundations of religious teachings.”

I have no doubt that this will only serve to elevate Iranian social science to new heights.  I mean, it isn’t like doubt is fundamental to the scientific enterprise or anything…

[via The Monkey Cage]


Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  

Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.

In Praise of Falsification

For those that have not read it yet, The Atlantic recently featured an article profiling Dr. John Ioannidis who has made a career out of falsifying many of the findings of medical research that guides clinical practice.  Ioannidis’ research should cause us all to appreciate the various bias we may bring to our own work:

[C]an any medical-research studies be trusted?

That question has been central to Ioannidis’s career. He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem. [my emphasis]

Unlike most famous researchers, Ioannidis is not famous for a positive discovery or finding (unless you count his mathematical proof that predicts error rates for different methodologically-framed studies).  Instead, his status has been obtained because of his ability to falsify the work of others–to take their hypotheses and empirical research and show that they are wrong.

This is highly unusual, not only in the area of medical research, but in most academic disciplines.  The article notes that researchers are incentivized to publish positive findings–preferably paradigm altering ones–and this leads to a breakdown in the scientific method.  As Karl Popper so famously argued, knowledge accumulates based on the testing of theories that are then subjected to replication by other researchers.  If the original findings are falsified–meaning that the evidence does not support the theory–the theory is scrapped and replaced with a new theory that has greater explanatory power.  Knowledge is built through the cumulative falsification of theories.  One can think about falsification as the successive chipping away at a block of stone–the more we chip away the closer we get to an actual form.  If researchers are not incentivized to pursue falsification we all lose as a result, since incorrect findings are not vigorously retested and challenged.  According to Ioannidis, if they are challenged it is often years–if not decades-after they have been generally accepted by research communities.

It would appear that Theodore Roosevelt was not entirely correct.  The critic should, in fact, count a great deal.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]


What you should know about ‘Right to Know’

While WikiLinks is dumping information from the US military all over the internets, the South African government is taking some rather disturbing steps to ensure that citizens, citizens and pretty much everyone in between will not have the right to access any information deemed a threat to “national security”.  What kind of information threatens national security? Well, according to the “Protection of Information Bill”, pretty much whatever government (local, regional, national) decides. It’s a dangerously vague bill that could possibly do great harm to South Africa. I don’t think I need to go into great detail why so much government control over information is a bad thing. I’m not an African politics specialist, but I’ve been chatting about it with my very cool historian friend Sarah Duff, who gave me the following run-down of the main issues below that I thought I would share with Duck readers as this story, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention outside of South Africa. If nothing else, how could you possibly resist a movement with a logo of a crumpled vuvuzela?

Last month the Minister for State Security, Bheki Cwele, announced to the Ad Hoc Committee currently steering the controversial Protection of Information Bill through the South African Parliament that ‘secrecy is the oil which lubricates our democracy.’ While not only an icky choice of metaphor, Cwele’s positioning of secrecy at the heart of South African democracy runs counter to the ideals embodied by our Constitution, and is also ‘against the spirit of 1994’, as struggle veteran and former cabinet minister Kader Asmal remarked last week. If it is passed in its current form, the Protection of Information Bill will empower state employees – in government departments, parastatals, local government councils, and state agencies – to classify all and any information as secret without having to provide reasons for doing so.

This Bill has been introduced on the grounds that South Africa’s ‘national interest’ needs to be better protected by allowing the state to make ‘sensitive’ information secret. But partly because of the Bill’s very vague definition of ‘national interest’, it is clear that its reach is far wider than ensuring South Africa’s security. (It is also debatable whether South Africa needs this legislation when other laws, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, make allowance for the classification of sensitive information.) By allowing government officials to classify all state-held information, by increasing the penalty for being in possession of classified information to imprisonment to up to 25 years, and by refusing to include a ‘public interest’ clause, the Bill will have profound implications for the work done by journalists and whistleblowers. In fact, the Bill is unconstitutional, as it contradicts Section 32 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to access information.

Although the media has drawn attention to the Bill’s potential to stifle freedom of speech and expression, the Bill’s impact will be felt by all South Africans, and will have a disproportionate effect on those people who rely heaviest on the state for support. It was for this reason that the Right2Know Campaign was launched at the end of August. Representing more than 400 civil society organisations and 10,000 individuals who have signed the Campaign’s petition, Right2Know campaigns against the introduction of what we call the Secrecy Bill: a piece of legislation which will transform South Africa into a secretive and paranoid society. Our week of action against the Bill was launched with a silent march to Constitution Hill on 19 October – to coincide with commemorations of ‘Black Wednesday’ when, in 1977, the apartheid government banned three newspapers on the grounds of the protection of the national interest – and will culminate with marches to Parliament in Cape Town and the Durban City Hall on 27 October. Our branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban have put on a range of seminars, workshops, cultural evenings, and even a symbolic funeral for free speech.

Political commentator Richard Calland has described Right2Know as ‘very remarkable, and very significant’, and the Campaign has made political waves. During his second presentation to Parliament on Friday, Cwele condemned the campaign’s actions and giggled nervously as Right2Know campaigners lined the walls of the meeting room. But he turned a deaf ear to the Campaign’s concerns. We only have one chance to stop this Bill, and from preventing South Africa from becoming a society of secrets. We will make ourselves heard loudly – so that not even the deafest government can ignore us.

For more on Right2Know, see and check out their twitter here


Is Academic Jargon Elitist?

Shortest Drezner:

The specialization of knowledge leads actors to reduce the transacton costs of communication with each other. Naturally, this phenomenon creates a barrier to entry for outside consumers, while instilling a common identity among specialists.

This is his short and concise but jargony argument in favor of the value of academic jargon. For the long-winded explanation in language non-academic can understand, see here.


“War Diaries 2.0”: Is Wikileaks Moving Down the Learning Curve?

In a number of respects the Iraq War Diaries constitute a repeat of the Afghan War Diaries – a massive data dump bringing to light few unknowns but admittedly casting those knowns in much sharper relief, an act for which Julian Assange is being hailed or harangued by those of different persuasions, for different reasons. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, I’ve pointed out a couple of things that are different this time ‘round:

Assange was previously criticized, including by me, for protecting his sources but exposing the names of vulnerable individuals named in the documents themselves. In his newest public statements, Assange has bent over backward to insist he did a more careful redaction this time. My cursory examination of some random documents suggests it may be true. (I withhold judgment until either I or someone else has looked through a larger number of them, but I do feel generally a bit less uncomfortable than I was last time he unleashed a dump like this – if only because he acknowledges the norm of limiting collateral damage by war reporters as well as war fighters.)

That said, DOD and members of military families have legitimate concerns about the security of troops on the basis of this information. This is a different concern than the one I’ve written about previously, which is the security of local civilians, but it’s also not to be taken lightly. I continue to think there is a middle ground between staying silent and dumping massive amounts of data on the public.

Assange’s newfound powers of redaction do also, of course, raise a question as to how Assange possibly managed to redact such a large number of documents, given his claim that it would require $700 million and Pentagon help to redact the AWD. I guess miracles never cease in this technological age.

My post goes on to argue:

Wikileaks’ mode of information dissemination is also quite different this time around. The Afghan War Diaries site was fairly rudimentary, a simple portal through which individuals could download the entire set of files. includes a search engine with a topic model, and in the absence of a search presents documents from the files seemingly at random. (I like the tool that automatically expands acronyms.)Most interestingly is the separate page where individuals can comment on bits of the logs without downloading the whole, flagging specific documents and providing commentary. Truly, “War Diaries 2.0″.

Not sure as yet how precisely the topics are generated, whether through searches or some sort of coding scheme developed in advance by Assange and team. Oh that Wikileaks were as transparent about its decision-making as it asks governments to be.

Finally, the answer to the question in the title may ultimately be based on internal dynamics within the organization itself – which are also in constant motion. An excellent source to follow on what Wikileaks is, as opposed to what it does, is here.


A Quick and No-Doubt Premature Look at WikiLeaks (Iraq Edition)

Just a few initial observations/questions

1. Iraq Body Count is arguing that the documents help provide further information on civilian deaths.  No doubt this will add further impetus for the call for militaries to release information on casualties killed in armed conflict. I wonder, however, if IBC has to walk a fine line here – if they say that the information released provides information on hundreds or thousands of previously unknown incidents, it means that they are effectively saying their own methodology was flawed. On the other hand if they say that it confirms their numbers, then they undermine their own argument for releasing information.[Update: IBC is indeed saying that the documents “contain an estimated 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths.”]

Still, I think they are trying to straddle the middle based on this account here.  They’re saying that they are predominantly getting more details (ie: names) from the reports. However, in my mind, this still doesn’t answer the more important  question as to whether it’s really a good idea to publish the names of victims on a database a) during the middle of a raging civil war b) located in a Western country, controlled by a technically unaccountable NGO, where the families have no input or control over what is stated. (But a blog post for another day…)

2. The documents seem to be making clear that although Iraqi detainee abuse is something that the world has associated with US troops at Abu Ghraib, it was endemic throughout the country and it was largely carried out by Iraqis against other Iraqis. Many of these incidents were reported but so far it seems that in many cases that no further investigation seems to have been carried out.

This is interesting in that it seems (on the surface at this point) to reflect the same controversy as to the handing over of Afghan detainees by Canadian troops to Afghan jails. If you hand over a detainee, you are responsible for his or her treatment under the Geneva Conventions. If US troops were handing over prisoners to the Iraqis, knew they were being abused and then did not investigate, this could be a serious violation of the laws of war. Particularly if this was systematic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this – what was the logic of not investigating further or sooner?  Some of the immediate explanations (not excuses) I can think of are:
  1. Some of these incidents may have been Iraqis captured not by US troops but by other Iraqis and US soldiers were making observations. If this was the case I’m not sure the law is that clear as to who was responsible – I think it would depend at what point during the occupation that this occurred and who had effective control of the country.
  2. These reflect larger problems with handing over prisoners in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq which are very much tied up with the problem of trying to hand over sovereignty. Essentially, a military power is trying to force a country to work, and to have an infrastructure (including prisons) as soon as possible. After all, this is what is expected and what the international community was demanding. So taking over prisons is clearly not allowing Iraq to be sovereign, but not acting may have been a violation of the laws of war. Which is it to be? And I’m sure asking the Iraqi insurgents/leaders/prison guards during the insurgency there nicely to stop electrocuting their prisoners was probably not particularly effective.
    This issue of large numbers of detainees located in prisons that do not meet even the most basic international standards in conflicts where Western nations are engaged in an armed conflict (particularly where the state on where it takes place has a de jure sovereignty, but de facto quasi-sovereignty)  has emerged as a major problem over the last decade and should be taken up by international legal scholars and Western states so as to hopefully avoid this problem in the future.

This is just a first take – looking forward to what others have to say.


Friday Signaling Roundup

Here are a few quick signaling items for your perusal.  I will try to do a similar roundup each Friday if I’ve stumbled on enough items throughout the week.  Enjoy!

  • How to Signal That You Are Marrying for Love? It’s tougher than you might think.  Some suggest using a pre-nuptial agreement to signal one’s love and affection instead of their love of money.  If one is truly marrying for love and not money they should have no problem signing a pre-nup if they are the less-wealthy of the pair.  However, the pre-nup may act as a signal from the wealthier of the two parties that they have reason to believe that the marriage will not last.  Therefore, pre-nups are likely only an optimal signal when they are suggested at first by the least wealthy member of the couple. (via Cheap Talk)
  • Tyler Cowen asks the questions “Which ingredient most signals a quality dish?”:  I can’t think of one off the top of my head.  Scallions is noted in the post, and that’s a pretty good one.  I’d think that ingredients that are financially costly and/or time consuming to prepare would also signal quality.  So, higher quality cuts of meat or dishes that are slow roasted or smoked, etc.  A friend of mine once remarked, “Ah, Bean salad.  If you’ve got bean salad then you know there is going to be great desert.”  He was using the quality of an earlier dish to predict the quality of a later one.  (via Marginal Revolution)
  • Can Cheap Talk Deter (PDF)? Potentially in an entry-deterrence situation, according to a draft paper by Dustin Tingley and Barbara Walter.  Tingley and Walter find that in an experimental setting, contra the expectations of their formal model, when participants were able to make a verbal threat to the first potential market entrant it decreased the instances of conflict from 83% (where communication wasn’t allowed) to 38%.  This is interesting, since the verbal threats by the defender where by definition costless (since they wouldn’t not face the challenger again and additional challengers would not know if they followed through on the threat)–meaning, they shouldn’t have revealed any additional information to the challenger.  My first thought is that in an experimental setting subjects might be revealing information through their body language or micro-expressions (which can’t be captured by a formal model) and that these signals conveyed additional information to the challenger.  But defenders where only allowed to communicate their threats to challengers through email.  The authors offer some potential reasons for the discrepant results, such as the unexpected success of early round costless threats actually signals that the defender is a savvy player and understands the game (i.e. fighting early in early rounds to deter future entrants makes sense, and therefore they are likely to follow through on the threat since future entrants will see that they fought).

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]


Remembering Professor Fred Halliday

In April of this year I noted the death of Professor Fred Halliday – a noted scholar of nationalism, the Middle East and International Relations generally. He was something of a giant in British IR and I know his work was well known throughout the Middle East as well. I was fortunate enough to be in one of his last MSc International Relations courses at the London School of Economics in 2001-2.

There are a number of things being done to commemorate Professor Halliday and his work. For London readers, there will be an event at the LSE on 3 November (tickets required). Additionally, Alejandro Colás and George Lawson have written an article in Millennium Journal of International Relations (made freely available by SAGE) reflecting on his work which may be of interest to blog readers.

Operation Dragon Strike and Kandahar

The New York Times is reporting that ISAF troops are making progress in Kandahar.  Credit for progress is given equally to the surge in troops and a new mobile rocket which has “pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile.”  While military commanders are cautious, Western and Afghan civilians are saying that Taliban losses have “sapped the momentum the insurgency had in the area.”

As I am skeptical of some of the spin and zombie reporting which has been generated by the American media in recent months, I thought I would check and see what Afghan news sources are reporting from the areas of fighting: Mehlajat, Arghandab, and Zhare District.

There is little news coverage of the actual offensive aside from short press releases by the government or the Afghan army and occasional editorials which express pessimism about the likely outcome of the operation.  What is more interesting for those trying to understand the conflict from afar is what is being reported and discussed in the local media… Below is a quick summary of some of the more interesting news articles I came across.

1. “Death Threats, Low Salaries Leave Kandahar Government Understaffed” by Bashir Ahmad Nadeem (10/17/2010) Pajhwok Afghan News.  This article describes the nearly 600 positions in the provincial capital and various districts which are going unfilled mainly due to death threats by the Taliban.  As the salaries on offer are also quite low by national standards, there have been very few applicants for the open positions.  The applicants who have come for interviews are apparently unqualified.  College graduates prefer to work in neighboring provinces.  The absence of administrative officials (including judges and attorneys) in the districts also means that citizens are more prone to turn to the Taliban to resolve disputes.  Morale among those who continue to work for the government is naturally quite low.

2. “Afghan President Orders Probe into Prisoner’s Death,” National Afghanistan TV (10/19/2010).  The major story in Arghandab District is the death of Mullah Muhibullah.  The Mullah was either being held at a government-run prison or an ISAF detention center (different news accounts vary widely) when coalition forces shot him; the mullah was found dead the next day.  Pajhwok News Agency is reporting that an American soldier has been arrested and is being interrogated.  ISAF has released a statement saying the Mullah committed suicide in his cell.  Some news outlets have also implied that the Mullah may have been tortured before his death as the prison had a poor human rights record.  (On a related topic, it is worth noting that 50 members of the provincial ‘ulema council have been assassinated in the last nine months by unknown gunmen.  A few have been killed while praying in mosques.)

3. “North is Being Lost Due to Optimism of Officials” an editorial in a Dari language Kabul newspaper, Arman-e Melli (10/17/2010).  The editorial notes that while General Petraeus has been talking about success against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, the insurgents appear to be gaining ground in the northern provinces of Afghanistan.

4. “ISAF Vows Improved Coordination with Afghan Forces,” by Khwaja Baseer Ahmad (10/19/2010) by Pajhwok Afghan News.  The article cites the Wolesi Jirga representative from Southern Kandahar complaining that there is no coordination between Afghan and international forces which are resulting in civilian casualties.  In this regard it is worth noting that the ICRC has issued a statement that the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar received nearly 1,000 war wounded patients in August and September  – record high numbers and double the figure from the previous year (see “War Casualties Soar: Red Cross,” Pajhwok Afghan News 10/12/2010).

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


Too many bodies? Communicating the population question

The question of human over-population of our planet seems to resurface every few decades, driven by fears that there are too many people to feed, clothe and shelter, or that the sheer volume of human beings working, travelling and polluting is causing environmental damage. But the persuasiveness of such claims is weakened empirically and normatively. In terms of facts, it does not help the over-population claimants that every time the population question is raised, humanity seems to deal with the problem. People do find food, clothing and shelter. And in terms of values, the notion of limiting or reducing the number of human beings appears a slippery slope to calls for coercion and perhaps eugenics in the name of ‘the greater good’. But in 2010 the question is being asked again.

At Royal Holloway last night, Professor Diana Coole presented early analyses from her new three year project, Too many bodies? The politics and ethics of the world population question. She is interested in why the question is re-emerging now and why it is in developed countries that calls are loudest for something to be done, according to her analysis of media and policy documents. Size of world population seems to have causal links to the development of climate change, water and food security, managing waste, and preserving diversity. The Royal Society’s working group People on the Planet raises this explicitly, as did the Stern Report – though neither recommended any proposals to intervene in human population numbers. As Coole argued, the tools we have for managing demography – fertility, mortality and migration – are all political minefields. Governments quietly manage birthrates through tax and welfare regimes and campaigns on family planning, but few policymakers in liberal democracies would explicitly institute a one-child or two-child policy for families.
It is interesting that Coole, a critical theorist in the continental tradition, should be asking why the population question remains a taboo. Materiality, vital matter, the non-human and post-human futures have all been on the critical theory agenda recently, in IR and more broadly. People are not the only things that matter. This scholarly focus parallels public-political claims for ‘sustainability’ in which the maintenance of ecosystems are considered more pressing than the continuation of humanity and certainly more pressing than economic growth. Might it be that a new strategic narrative will be formed and brought to bear on policy, a ‘smaller, better humanity’ narrative? Population projection statistics are ambiguous and can easily be used to support Malthusian stories. And Coole’s project may unpick the factual and normative discourses that silence talk of the population question, so that the better-smaller narrative — if that is what is being formulated — can be heard.

(Cross-posted from


The Individual Utility of Incompetence

There are many reasons why organizations (government, businesses, etc) grow dysfunctional and stagnant.  One major reason lies with the promotion and retention of less capable workers.  There have been a number of studies that explored this dynamic (for example, The Peter Principle, which theorizes that people are promoted as long as they are competent, which means at some point they reach a position of incompetence).  In general, though, the promotion and retention of incompetent workers would seem to run counter to the rational interests of the larger organization.  So why does this behavior persist?  Why are less competent workers able to retain their positions and, in some cases, obtain promotions?

One potential reason is that it is their very incompetence that is valued.  Incompetence acts as a credible, costly signal that they can be trusted by superiors looking to accumulate a power base.

Sociologist Diego Gambetta is a pioneer in the study of signaling.  In his 2007 book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, Gambetta uses the extreme case of cooperation amongst criminals to tease out more general dynamics of trust, signaling, and communication.  The Mafia can be considered a “hard-case” for theories of signaling trust; given the extreme incentives for criminals to lie and the lack of credibility they wield given the very fact that they are criminals, how is it that criminals manage to coordinate their actions and trust each other at all?  By understanding how trust works in this harsh environment we learn something about how to signal trustworthiness in broader, less restrictive environments.

Gambetta theorizes that one way that a criminal can signal their trustworthiness to another is through their own incompetence:

The mobsters’ henchman, so often caricaturised in fiction as an énergumène, epitomizes the extreme case of this class. If he were too clever he would be a menace to the boss. Idiocy implies a kind of trustworthiness.  […] One way of convincing others that one’s best chance of making money lies in behaving as an ‘honourable thief’, is by showing that one lacks better alternatives.  […] Incompetence is one way of telling people “You can count on me for even if I wanted to I would not be able to cheat.”

Through this mechanism, lower-level criminals can signal their trustworthiness to their bosses, since they are essentially dependent on their bosses for their economic gains given their lack of independent skill and intelligence.  This pervasive logic means that criminal organizations are likely to employ mostly incompetent criminals and that leaders will likely surround themselves with less competent lieutenants over time.

It is not hard to see this same logic play out in businesses, schools, and government.  If organizations are set up in such a way where the accumulation of loyalists is incentivized instead of performance, we should expect to see a greater number of incompetent employees relative to competent ones.  Additionally, we should see more incompetent employees advance as their “sponsor” advances.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]
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