Is the intentional killing of civilians okay? Thursday, May 5 2011 

First, let me apologize for the long delay between posts. I’m busy in life, and I am not afforded the free time to do research and write extensively that I had as a student at university. Also, I am posting this because it is a subject that particularly touched me, though I do have several posts regarding economics and democracy that I’ve had lined up for quite some time. There have been plenty of subjects I would have loved to write about since I put my writing on hold. But this I would like to address right now.

The question I pose in the title seems like an easy one to answer. To any decent human being, the answer should be no. The conclusion seems to go unquestioned. The idea that the killing of innocent lives is morally wrong and unjust is so embedded in the mores and norms of our culture, and countless others across the globe, the questions seems nearly absurd on its face. Yet, I’ve recently found myself asking the question and defending the forgoing conclusion in a Facebook discussion. Surely, though, the only opposition would be from a militant extremist, some brainwashed fascist, or simply a troll?

Actually, the tiff was with none other than Fouzi Slisli, a human relations professor at SCSU. (This is the same professor whom, by the way, I vehemently defended on this blog and in the SCSU University Chronicle regarding a presentation he and others had gave on the attack on Gaza in 2009, which was interrupted by professor Edelheit. This is also the same professor I praised, both here and in the University Chronicle, for their trip to Palestine and their presentation of that trip.) I do not pretend to admit that Dr. Slisli does not take outspoken stances on several issues, some of which I agree with, but this one goes beyond the pale.

This started when the professor posted a link to a Telegraph article titled “Muslim group claims royal wedding is legitimate terror target.” Seemingly approving the notion, he says, “They’re not saying they are going to target the wedding; they’re just saying the wedding is a legitimate target and might be targeted by others…” I reply, saying, “No such thing as a legitimate target that has as its essence a civilian population.” The conclusion seems obvious enough. But not for Dr. Slisli.

Dr. Slisli contends that the U.S.—and the West in general—has targeted civilians and has deliberately killed civilians. This is undoubtedly true. I agree with the professor here. In fact, I wrote on this blog about the criminal bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, describing them as “One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history.” The intentional killing of civilians is a sad reality of U.S. foreign policy and is a reason why the U.S. is one of the leading terror states. However, the fact that the West attacks civilians in no way justifies the position that killing civilians is okay. It should seem obvious enough that the actions of the West do not dictate morality. A moral theory based on such a concept would be shallow, as only a few moments of thought and reflection evidences.

Certainly the West’s behavior vis-à-vis its rhetoric makes it hypocritical. But as logic might remind us, hypocrisy does not validate an argument. Tu quoque (“you too”) is a kind of fallacious argument that aims to discredit a conclusion because its arguer does not adhere to said conclusion. But the fact that the U.S. has engaged or is currently engaged in targeting civilians has no bearing on the question of its legality or its morality. As I stated to him, “The question, though, isn’t whether the West has attacked civilians. The question is what is the proper response? Is it proper to attack the civilians of the offending nation—say you or I? That is to say, is it legitimate [to] deliberately target civilians for any reason? The answer is no. And the answer doesn’t change just because Western governments have violated the rule. Sure, it tells us a lot about the moral culture of Western nations. But if it’s wrong for the West that also means its wrong for everyone else. That’s just the elementary principle of moral universality.” (Many readers know that I’ve repeatedly mentioned the principle of moral universalism on this blog, and I’ll return to it here later.) The principle of universalism dictates that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others (more stringent ones, in fact) and vice-versa. If it’s wrong for the West to kill civilians, it is wrong for you and your cohorts to do the same; if it is right for you to kill civilians, it is right for the U.S.

Dr. Slisli contends that moral universalism, “lofty as it is, does not capture the complexity of the issue.” While I believe the principle is both basic and elementary (far from lofty)—the necessary basis for any decent moral theory—the professor takes issue with it. He claims I am “making the weaker sides to a conflict uphold a morality that you know full well the stronger side does not/will not uphold.” But again, that has no bearing on the question of either its legality or its morality. In any case, Dr. Slisli says Islam offers a “contingency plan” that universalism does not in situations for those who suffer the transgressions of others: “the law of equality.” This law states, “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Those from the Christian tradition can think of a similar idea found in the Bible (“an eye for an eye”). Thus, “if anyone transgresses this universal law against you, the Qur’an instructs, then Muslims are allowed to transgress likewise against the enemy,” posits Dr. Slisli. (Of course, “Allah prefers if Muslims have restraint.”) He therefore concludes that, while it’s preferable to have restraint, it is not necessary when “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” (emphasis his). He does claim, however, “I am not stating my own opinion here” and that he is “merely explaining the legal frameworks that the Qur’an sets for the rules of war and the legal status of civilians and civilian infrastructure.” I’ll leave the latter claim for more competent scholars.

In any case, the phrase that Muslims ought to show restraint unless “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” in an important one because it requires the person using force to demonstrate that in fact it is for the purpose of protecting oneself. So certainly the onus is on the attacker to demonstrate that attacking innocent civilians is an act of “protecting oneself.” And quite frankly I don’t think the onus can be met. In fact, I would venture to say that it would have the opposite effect: it would endanger oneself more. The reason should be obvious, but I’ll return to it later.

At this point, the discussions turns ugly. Dr. Slisli perverts my statements, saying my act of “Preaching non-violence while the powerful is sawing through the weak is, in practical terms, nothing but a complicity by inaction.” Careful readers will note that at no point do I ever “preach non-violence,” and most certainly not to those stricken by violence. In fact, I do believe violence is legitimate, but only under very certain circumstances, and the onus is on the perpetrator to demonstrate that violence is appropriate. So, for example, the use of force for the purpose of self-defense is legitimate. You can find this precedence in article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense has always been a legitimate act. Thus, I fully support the Quaranic injunction that allows for the use force to “protect oneself.” Again, though, one has to demonstrate that the use of force is, in fact, self-defense.

To attack innocent civilian populations under the guise of self-defense is an act reserved only for the most morally depraved. And I do not pretend that this is an uncommon excuse for violence and terror. Take, say, Hitler when he invaded Poland and began his slaughter of Jews and millions of others; he did so under the pretense of self-defense. That’s always the pretense. We could go through a long list, but I doubt that would be necessary.

So let’s summarize. According international law, Quaranic injunctions, and elementary morality, self-defense is legitimate. The use of force, violence, etc. is legitimate insofar as it can be demonstrated to be legitimate, for example for the purpose of self-defense. Attacking those who have not attacked you does not qualify as self-defense. Ergo, the killing of innocent civilian lives is illegitimate and is deeply immoral. It is for this reason that such acts are outlawed, condemned (nearly) universally, is considered terrorism, and is a grave abuse against human rights.

Yet, the professor is having none of it. He clings to the claim that, because the U.S. does it, it’s okay for everyone else to do it. He ponders, “If the West refuses to apply the universal laws of common decency with people A, B and C, why should people A and B and C apply the laws of common decency with the West?” He gives two reason why A, B, and C might. He says either they would because “the balance of power OBLIGES THEM to uphold the laws of common decency” while the other side does not—i.e., they are too weak to retaliate. The second is because “People A, B and C are ‘better people’ and although the West doesn’t deal with them decently, they CHOOSE to act and be better.” He admits the latter case demonstrates “admirable strength because it produces moral rectitude.” Yet, he says this is not the path to follow, because it is a deceit by the West to prevent its victims from retaliating. He wonders, “Is it a coincidence you think that intellectuals in colonial societies have always advised the colonized to use non-violence?” He claims the idea that we ought not attack innocent civilians has “sinister uses as a weapon to disarm populations …”

Therefore, Dr. Slisli concludes, the proper order of things is for A, B, and C to “apply common decency with People D, E and F and EVERY OTHER people who submit to the universal laws of common decency.” But should someone not adhere to the “universal laws,” then A, B, and C “also HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THAT COMMITMENT VOID IF THE OTHER SIDE FLAGRANTLY VIOLATES IT.” There’s a problem with this argument, though. A law is not “universal” if it is not applied universally. Of course, what the professor really meant to say, if he were being a little more honest, is, “it’s wrong for them to do it to me, but it’s okay for me to do it to them.” And it’s a demonstration of the sheer hypocrisy found in those defending the attacks on innocent lives. And that’s a vile maxim that operates nearly everywhere: it’s a crime if they do it, but not when I do it. If you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what one might call a “universal law.”

Finally, an argument made by others (and hinted at by Dr. Slisli when he accuses me of “a complicity by inaction”) is that innocent civilians really aren’t innocent at all. (In a separate posting, Dr. Slisli contends the innocents being targeted by al-Qaeda, including Muslims, are “the Crusader-Zionist alliance and those who collaborate with them,” thus fair game. But, “At any rate, this is an inter-Muslim debate in which Americans have no business sticking their nose.” When innocent American lives are at stake, I believe this to be an issue in which we might have the right to stick our nose, so I’ll continue.) One commenter notes, “We are all party to what our government/military does until it stops,” as if it’s a valid argument for attacks on civilians. But if they commenter, whom I’ve also defended elsewhere, agrees with me that the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wrong, as I suspect they do, then it is wrong for terrorists to bomb us here. Just because these were citizens of Imperial Japan make them no more a legitimate target than you or I simply because we are U.S. citizens. So in the same vein, the attack on the World Trade Center was no more legitimate than the U.S. and Israel’s punishment of Gazan citizens for voting the wrong way in a free election. They both represent an illegitimate and immoral use of force.

So back to the original topic of the royal wedding, just because the spectators of the royal wedding are citizens of the country, or merely residents, or merely tourists, or merely bystanders does not make them a legitimate target. And, as it was hinted in the previous sentence, attacks on civilian populations do not even assure one that those targeted are only nationals of that country, as there could very easily be non-associated agents within the same population. But even if we could assume it was only nationals within the civilian population being targeted, is nationality ever a legitimate basis for attack? I suspect the commenter who says we are all party to our government’s crimes also believes that other discriminations based on nationality are wrong. So if I asked her if it’s okay for us to make certain nationalities pay more in taxes or if it’s okay for us to put certain nationalities in internment camps or maybe even okay for us to toss certain nationalities into furnaces (because of the crimes their nations committed, of course), I’m confident she’d say no. Yet there is such a disconnect to the point that she see nothing wrong in the idea that it’s okay for innocent civilians to be subjected to terror attacks because of what their government has done. And that brings me to the final point, which I’ve discussed throughout this blog, which is that, even to the extent that I do live in a “democracy,” my influence on policy is basically near zero. Democracy is mostly nominal and is defined in procedural terms: I pull a lever every four years and keep quiet and to myself in the time in between. Does that make me responsible to some extent? Maybe one could argue so. But it certainly does not make me a legitimate target for attacks, nor does it make Dr. Slisli, nor the aforementioned commenter—neither of whom, I’m sure, are ready to admit they are vile war criminals deserving death.

I understand the importance of criticizing one’s own crimes. Again, to the extent that I do live in a democracy and free society, I can make some effort to address them. I take seriously Dr. Slisli’s argument that, “If you want to talk universalism, then you should make the aggressor stop aggression FIRST …” Those who have read my blog know well my critique of state crimes, particularly those of the U.S. That has always been my focus. A dishonest person is one who criticizes the crimes of others but does not reflect on his own. But that does not make the crimes of others any less of a crime. This is a moral truism we should not easily let escape from our minds.

Cooperate AND Compete Saturday, Apr 17 2010 

Yesterday, in my managerial economics class with professor Komai, we talked about “co-opetition.” Coopetition is a portmanteau of “cooperation” and “competition,” and it essentially means cooperative competition. This is the first time I’ve heard of the concept being formally introduced, and the first time I’ve ever heard of the concept was when Barry Nalebuff, a professor of management at Yale University, gave a speech about it at last March’s Winter Institute. (I wrote about his speech, briefly, here.) The idea that he introduced was that firms, even if they are competitors, work together in such a fashion that they can “expand the pie,” which he argues is better for both the consumer and the firms. He is careful to note that he does not advocate collusion or anti-competitive behavior. The difference between coopetition and, say, collusion is that the former is a strategy for expanding the market whereas the latter is a strategy to divide the market. In this sense, coopetition is not anti-competitive. I’m sure there are various examples that Dr. Nalebluff offers in his book, but I have not read it. One example might be if two newspapers share their distribution systems. In this way, they are not being anti-competitive, but are acting cooperatively to expand total demand (i.e. the size of the market).

What Dr. Nalebluff does brilliantly is take microeconomic and managerial economic theory and apply it to the real world. Too often, these theories focus on competition. How can oligopolies compete? Managerial economics gives many neat theories about how firms can set prices and quantities to compete effectively with their competitors. It also tells us how anti-competitive cooperation between firms is bad for society (e.g. when firms collude). But not often spoke about is how firms can effectively cooperate with each other and still compete at the same time.

This is why, I think, King Banaian of the economics department here at SCSU got so worked up last September about a note hung up on a board on campus that read, “Cooperate, DON’T Compete.” Dr. Banaian implied that such a comment was the result of “indoctrination” and was surprised by how remarkably “economically illiterate that comment was.” (Although, as I explain in the comment section, it’s not at all clear that the writer of this message was even talking about economics.) Even if the author of this message was talking about economics, is it true that such a comment is remarkably “economically illiterate”?

Everyone in economics is taught that competition is a good thing. We’re usually told cooperation is a bad thing. We can learn something from applied managerial economics though, which is that this conception of economics is not necessarily true. Competition in economics is good, yes, but cooperation can be too. Although economists seem to focus on how competition can be used effectively, there are other aspects to consider. Firms, after all, can cooperate with suppliers, can cooperate with governmental agencies, can cooperate with their employees, and can even cooperate with competitors (hence coopetition). More aptly, the comment should read, “Cooperate AND Compete.”

First Amendment Forum, again Friday, Apr 16 2010 

Today I was able to attend one of the presentations that was a part of the First Amendment Forum on campus, put together by the SCSU Society of Professional Journalists, the Department of Mass Communications, the St. Cloud Times, and others. The topic of the presentation that I attended was “Protecting Journalism in the Era of Dying Newspapers and Social Networking.” Though the topic was about the death of newspapers and the rise of online content and social networking, most of the panelists discussed how they were using or had used social media to complement their writings as journalists, reporters, or editors. However, once the discussion was opened to those in attendance, the issue of the death of traditional media was brought up.

Namely, the issue of charging for online content was brought up. This issue is the same issue that I had addressed in an earlier blog post and letter to the University Chronicle. I didn’t bring it up, but I believe the person who did was the same person I wrote my post in response to (that is, Kyle Stevens). The person asked the panel what they thought about the media charging for online content.

A salient point that one of the panelists (Ramla Bile) brought up was that charging for the news online introduces some problems in that doing so bars certain people (namely the poor) from accessing the news. Bob Collins, who works for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), said he really wished the Star Tribune would start charging people to read online content, because he believed doing so would drive more people to MPR. Adam Hammer of the St. Cloud Times likened it to the music industry, and the challenges they faced with the digitization of music and the piracy of said music. He explained how people became accustomed to listening to music through digital media, and it was Apple who recognized this and created iTunes to provide a legal channel through which people could access this digital music.

Of course, there’s the other side of this issue. The content wasn’t produced without a cost. How are the media supposed to make money if they can’t charge people to view their content? Both views are valid. We need to balance the ability to make a profit through producing important news and the necessity of not pricing people out of the market for this important news. In other words, we want people to get paid for doing good journalism, but we don’t want to bar people from accessing this journalism simply because they can’t afford it.

Some people might just respond that if people can’t afford something, they don’t deserve it. If you can’t pay for it, why should I give it to you? The problem with this argument, however, is that important news is not just another commodity to be bought and sold. The news, as I have always said, is a cornerstone of democracy. (In economics, it might be called a public good.) Scholars and political theorists have long recognized that a free and vibrant press is the foundation of civic society and liberal democracy. This is what differentiates online news from, say, online music in Hammer’s example. Music is important, yes, but not necessarily a requisite for a functioning democracy.

The question, thus, becomes whether we want to limit the dispersion of knowledge and important news or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible. This is where I disagree with Stevens. He believed we should charge for online content, which would have the effect of pricing people out of the market for important news. As I said, though, we need to consider the fact that the content was not produced for free and there is a certain necessity to generate a revenue to at least cover the costs of making such important news available. The suggestion I made, basing my argument off the work of Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, was that there be a public subsidy for independent journalism. Both McChesney and Nichols present several convincing arguments in support of their case. A public subsidy for independent (that is, not corporate) news would solve the aforementioned balancing issue; the cost of producing important news would be paid for, and accessing this content would be kept free, allowing for the greatest number of people to access vital information.

Israeli speaker to come to SCSU Thursday, Mar 11 2010 

There have been plenty of good events going on around campus lately. The latest is going to be an Israeli speaker who was in the Israeli Air Force but who later refused to participate in aerial attacks on Palestine. He is now a nonviolence and human rights activist. Here is an e-mail regarding the event that I got from Amber Michel, creator of the newly-formed SCSU Students for a Free Palestine student group on campus:

On March 26, Yonatan Shapira, former Israeli Air Force Captain,
Refusenik and human rights activist, will speak at SCSU to share his
experience in the Israeli military and how he came to work for
nonviolence and Palestinian human rights.

This is a tremendous honor and opportunity for our campus and
surrounding communities.

Don’t miss this chance to hear a first-hand account from someone who
was inside the Occupying force.

I’ll send along a flier soon with more information, but for now:

Yonatan Shapira
March 26, 2010
4:00 – 6:00 pm
Atwood Theater, Atwood Student Center
St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud, MN


In Solidarity,
Amber – Students for a Free Palestine

Some updates Saturday, Mar 6 2010 

I was only able to attend one of the speeches at the Academic Event of the Winter Institute, but I was glad it was Barry Nalebuff’s speech. Dr. Nalebluff is a professor of management at Yale University and is considered “an expert in business strategy and game theory” (Wikipedia). His speech was fascinating and I think Dr. Nalebluff is an excellent speaker. The title of his speech was also the subject of his book with Adam Brandenburger, “Co-opetition.” Co-opetition is a portmanteau of “cooperation” and “competition,” and it essentially means cooperative competition. The problem, says Dr. Nalebluff, is that we lack even the vocabulary to talk about the business strategy he advocates. What he advocates is that firms, even if they are competitors, work together in such a fashion that they can “expand the pie,” which he argues is better for both the consumer and the firms. He is careful to note that he does not advocate collusion or anti-competitive behavior. Co-opetition does not refer to how firms cooperate with each other to “divide the pie”; it is simply meant to increase the size of the industry as a whole and lower prices. He gives several examples of its application, but I won’t bother going into details here. The message I think that should be taken is that the old business models of “destroying your competition” and being envious results in less efficient outcomes than when firms also cooperate with each other in such a way that helps reduce prices and increase demand.

Another note I would like to make is regarding the Chile fundraising party that was held last Thursday. The Spanish Club along with several Chilean students hosted a dance for Chile in Atwood’s ballroom. The cost was $3 to get in and they also sold $1 raffle tickets for some prizes (e.g. music by Spanish professor Michael Hasbrouck). I was glad to volunteer my time; the earthquake that hit Chile was among the largest ever in history and killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in damage that the Chilean government says will take years to recuperate from. The Chileans on campus, and there are not many, are quite distraught over the whole event, and rightfully so. I have to say though, people have been overwhelming generous in Chile’s time of need. In just 3 days, the organizers of this event collected nearly $1,800 in donations (most of which came from the dance). It hasn’t yet been decided where the money is going, but the organizers want to go toward helping out a small community that was struck by the earthquake. Again, I would like to say thanks to all the organizers who put on this event in such a short order and all those who have donated money for helping Chile.

Finally, I just finished writing an essay on globalization’s effect on child labor for my international economics class with Dr. Lo. I chose the topic after making a post last month about ending child labor. Though length quotas for the paper put a limit on how in-depth I could explore the subject (which is enormously vast), I did do some more research and I may make a new post regarding some of the findings I came across, which are indeed fascinating.

Winter Institute Tuesday, Mar 2 2010 

Again for those in the St. Cloud area, the economics department of SCSU is holding their 48th annual Winter Institute summit regarding “business and economic leadership.” It is being held on Thursday, March 4th. The first half of the event, dubbed the Academic Event, is being held in the Kimberly Ristche Auditorium in Stewart Hall for free from 8:30 A.M until 12:45 P.M. There will be lunch at noon in Atwood for $12.50, but this requires registration and I believe it is full at this time. A list of topics and speakers for the Academic Event cant be seen here. Following the Academic Event will be the Business Event, which is being held at the Best Western Kelly Inn from 2:30 P.M. until 7:30 P.M. This also requires registration and a fee. I’m not sure if this event is also full at this time. A list of topics and speakers for the Business Event can be seen here.

The event is being described as “a valuable glimpse into a vastly changed economy. Attend the SCSU morning & luncheon events for a deep discussion on economic theory, or come to the Kelly Inn afternoon & evening events for business insights and bold predictions.” There appears to be a good lineup of economics speakers for the Academic Event, including Barry Nalebuff of Yale University, Costas Azariadis of Washington University, James Bullard who is the president of the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis. The Business Event will include these same speakers, as well as some regional businessmen and King Banaian, who is the chairman and a professor of the economics department. The closing speaker will be Yoram Bauman who is also from the University of Washington.

Dr. Bauman is particularly interesting to me, given that he will be speaking on climate change and because I’ve done a great deal of research on the topic as well (see here for previous posts on the subject). I won’t be attending that event, but I did read a few posts on his blog regarding climate change, and they’re all quite interesting. I’m glad Dr. Bauman recognizes that climate change is a real problem and that it has significant economic implications. I was reading, for example, this post about “libertarians on global warming,” where he accuses libertarians of the “Three No’s” (a humorous reference to the dubious “Three No’s” associated with the Khartoum Resolution): “No recognition that climate change is a theoretical possibility … No peace with the IPCC … No negotiation about climate change science, i.e., no serious scientific engagement.” It is true that rightist libertarians (e.g. Cato Institute) do tend to deny climate change science for whatever partisan reasons they have (they surely have no scientific basis), but I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do with libertarianism per se. True libertarians ought to be concerned—not dismissive—about climate change, as it represents a serious violation of the rights of not only current human beings but also of future human beings, as I explain in this post. As I point out, the issue is essentially an issue of externalities, which has an easy (market-based) solution. Dr. Bauman seems to agree when he writes, “the way market-based instruments reduce pollution is by making pollution expensive.” However, I unfortunately won’t be attending that event, so I won’t be able to write about it.

This summit presents a great opportunity for those in the St. Cloud area to be engaged in the economic issues of our time and is being presented by great economic thinkers. It’s not an opportunity you’ll want to miss. I will try to attend some of the speeches and may post a response some time later.

RE:God debate Thursday, Feb 25 2010 

Wow! I would like thank Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and Secular Student Alliance (SSA) for hosting and Professor Suzanne Stangl-Erkens for moderating last night’s debate between August Berkshire and Joe Boot on whether God exists or not. Mr. Boot argued in the affirmative, while Mr. Berkshire argued in the negative. The turnout was spectacular. There were 700 seats set out in the Atwood ballroom and an additional 200 were brought in to accommodate the influx of people. Even then, there were still people standing, so attendance was close to 1,000 people. That’s way more than I think anyone was expecting. This is clearly a subject many people are interested in, including even for college-aged students. In most of these types of events on campus, there is usually a high ratio of older adults to college students. I didn’t notice that here. It did seem to me that God-fearing Christians outnumbered the secular nonbelievers in the crowd, but that would be consistent with the broader demographic, though there was still strong support for Mr. Berkshire. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any polling beforehand to gauge the beliefs of those in attendance, though I did notice more people went towards SSA’s table than to Mr. Boot’s near the entrance of the ballroom. I think free material enticed people more than books for sale. 😉

As for the debate at hand, I cannot make much of a reply to Mr. Boot’s positions, as my knowledge on metaphysics is not very strong. I do, however, like how he took a philosophical approach and touched on some epistemological issues. Philosophy is one of my favorite subjects and I find it very interesting, so I do not take for granted his appeal to many philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, I believe it is only through these types of arguments that anyone can ascertain the existence or non-existence of God or a god. Moreover, I thought Mr. Berkshire was rather calm, straightforward, and concise, while Mr. Boot always seemed to be yelling and went over the allotted time on several occasions. At the same time, though, the debates were on quite different levels. By that, I mean they took very different approaches to their arguments. Mr. Berkshire was very concrete and straightforward in his arguments, in my opinion, whereas Mr. Boot was much more philosophical and abstract. Mr. Boot, for example, argued that the existence of God is necessary if we are to make any intelligible sense of the world, whereas Mr. Berkshire referred to this line of thinking as “God of the gaps”; Mr. Berkshire contended that since Mr. Boot could not find any natural explanation for certain phenomena (e.g. natural laws), that he was merely trying to fill the void (in knowledge) or gap with the invention of a god. So Mr. Berkshire’s argument was that there lacked any compelling evidence to lead him to believe in the existence of a god, whereas Mr. Boot argued that such an existence is logically necessary.

Who had the stronger arguments? Me being a member of SSA, I’m naturally inclined to say Mr. Berkshire did, just as I’m sure most of the Christians in the crowd would say Mr. Boot did. Did anyone in the crowd change their mind? I don’t know, maybe a few (as I said, there was no polling to objectively gauge this). For those coming in unsure, I hope either debater helped clarify the positions so that informed and educated decisions could made. I very much enjoyed the debate. It was great to hear from Mr. Boot a new perspective that I had not heard before. Mr. Berkshire also brought interesting arguments that I also had not heard before, which helped me solidify my beliefs. I do have to admit though, one my favorite quotes from the whole thing was from Mr. Berkshire: “According to Christian theology, God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.”

In the end, I think the debate was very constructive. Open, intelligent, and civil discussion serves an important function in liberal democratic societies. The fact that we’re able to hold discussions on such topics is a testament to progress of society, even within the past few decades. Where just a few decades ago atheists were relegated to second-class citizenship who should not be “considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots” according to the then-Vice President Bush, I am pleased we are able to discuss the topic rationally, respectably, and with impunity. While I do think much progress is left to be made in this area, I appreciate greatly the time and effort both Joe Boot and August Berkshire gave to bring this great experience to SCSU. I would again like to thank CRU, SSA, and Professor Stangl-Erkens. I would also like to thank all those in attendance who also took time to listen to perspectives they may have disagreed with it. In all, I believe there was a positive outcome.

God debate Tuesday, Feb 23 2010 

For those in the St. Cloud area, there is a debate being hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) on the topic, “Does God Exist?” The debaters are August Berkshire, who wast a past president of Minnesota Atheists, and Joe Boot from the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It will be from 8:00 P.M. until 10:00 P.M. at SCSU in the Atwood Ballroom. It is free to the public. The event was not advertised as well as it could have been, but I think there’s going to be a fairly large turnout still. For those planning on attending, there will be time for Q&A, so come with question in mind (or submit them beforehand at I think the debate will be interesting, and I might have a post responding to the event afterward. Religion tends to be a touchy and heated subject, but I always find intelligent, open, and civil discussion to be a great benefit for all people. In this vein, I hope you you show up and get some value out of it!

Edit: See my response to the event here.

ETS business test and Adam Smith Thursday, Jan 28 2010 

Today I took the ETS business field test. ETS exams are “assessments designed to measure the critical knowledge and understanding obtained by students in a major field of study,” according to their Web site. It’s a standardized test taken across different universities to measure, among other things, the success of the school’s core curriculum within a specified field. Everyone in the College of Business is essentially required to take the exam in their last semester. It really has no effect on the student, unless they do exceptionally well, in which case it may look good on a résumé because the test is taken among AACSB-accredited universities. Whether or not other colleges within the university also take an ETS exam for their respective field, I do not know. The topics covered in the business field test included, for the most part, accounting, financing, international business, business law, ethics, marketing, economics, statistics, and management. Some areas were emphasized more than others; for example, there were maybe three questions on ethics and perhaps 35 or so questions on accounting and financing, within the 120-question exam. The first question on my exam was about economics, which I thought was a good thing. The actual question itself, however, I did not think was so great.

I don’t remember the wording of the question exactly or or all the supplied answers (and they say I’m not allowed to reproduce any of the material from the exam), but the question was about Adam Smith and his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The question, if I remember correctly, was asking what Adam Smith advocated in The Wealth of Nations as something to increase the productivity of labor. There were four choices, and it was obvious enough that “division of labor” was the “most appropriate” answer. Everyone knows Adam Smith’s famous exposition of the division of labor in a pin factory. It’s how he begins his magnum opus. “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour,” writes Smith in this popular Edwin Cannan version of The Wealth of Nations (5th ed.). This is the Adam Smith everyone praises with all sorts of accolades.

Not very many people know the real Adam Smith, the one who wrote a few hundred pages later that the division of labor will cause people to have “no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.” The result, the real Adam Smith says, is that the division of labor will causes people to become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This “torpor of the mind,” he says, makes “him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.” This brutal effect “renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.” He concludes that these are the natural consequences of the division of labor, that is, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

Obviously enough, this Adam Smith does not get very much attention. Part of this, I suppose, is because not very many people read this Adam Smith. They read how he opens The Wealth of Nations, but don’t get much further. Another reason might be because it doesn’t suit the interests of those who wish to wield Adam Smith’s name in defense of their economic ideology. Writes Gavin Kennedy, one of the foremost scholars on Smith, “[Adam Smith’s legacy] has been stolen by modern economists to service their ends of legitimising their equilibrium mathematical models.” It might not be convenient for them to talk about the real Adam Smith who railed against greed, who never believed in an “invisible hand,” or who lambasted the “merchants and manufacturers” whose interests had “been most peculiarly attended to” by extorting “from the legislature for the support of their own absurd and oppressive monopolies” (in other words, corporations and their influence on politics, e.g., through unlimited “donations”).

It is true Adam Smith exposited that the division of labor increases productivity, but also that it leads to people becoming “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This is why I found the question in the ETS exam to be a little naïve. Was he advocating or was describing? I think he did more of the latter than the former.

So much ado, but about what? Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

I get tired writing about global warming (read: anthropogenic climate change). As far as I am concerned, the main conclusions are settled. The main conclusions that I’m talking about is the mainstream consensus outlined by the IPCC and supported by every major academy of science in the world and virtually every scientist publishing research on the matter. The consensus is that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, that this climate change has adverse effects, and that the effects are going to worsen if we continue down the “business as usual” path. That’s settled, no question about it. I would like to leave the quibbling over minor uncertainties, model improvements, and further refinement of the theory to the more capable scientists who publish legitimate research in the technical literature. I find myself, however, having to defend against the main conclusions of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, because people find opportunity to attack it whenever it becomes politically convenient. That’s essentially what we call partisanship (i.e. hackery). These people like to pretend they are engaging in some sort of scientific inquiry, so label themselves “skeptics.” But we know this is not true—the real skeptics (e.g. Lindzen) are few and far between—so I label them “septics,” borrowing the term from William Connolley, who explains the meaning on his blog.

Again, we find the septics at the SCSU Scholars blog making a bunch of ado, in their regular fashion. But about what? Essentially, nothing. Dr. Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, using a satirist’s Web site for reference (though, be careful in pointing out the fact, or you’ll be accused of ad hominems), complains about the use of principal components analysis (PCA)—a statistical procedure used in the analysis of data—in a 1998 paper written by Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (hereafter referred to as Mann et al.). The problem for Dr. Banaian lies in the fact that, as he explains it, “PCA is a technique that, in the social sciences, has been found to be highly sensitive to the inclusions of new proxies.” This might be true, in part, he says, in the natural sciences, but he’s not really sure, probably, in part, because he hasn’t read about it. That might be a wild supposition, but given that the professor even admits to us that he hasn’t even bothered to read the paper he criticizes, it’s not beyond legitimate possibility. This, he says, “increases my skepticism,” though “septicism” probably would have been more fitting.

I try to point out to the professor that the Mann et al. paper, the basic conclusion of which is that contemporary warming is anomalous (differing from previous warming), is valid and supported by virtually the entire scientific community that’s spoken on the issue, including those scientists who have published criticisms of the Mann et al. paper. Dr. Banaian says Mann et al. are wrong, I say they are correct. I better provide some evidence, right? One might reasonably make that assumption, so I link to a report done by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which concluded, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) … that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years … has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence …” Summarizing the report, Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, writes that the the NAS “affirms [the] hockey-stick graph,” while Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a critic and pretty close to being a skeptic himself, writes, “the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.” In addition to the NAS report, I linked to two peer-reviewed articles that support Mann et al.‘s use of PCA and the accuracy of their reconstruction of past temperature. The first paper, by Wahl and Amman (2007), is a response to McIntyre (who Dr. Banaian later appeals to) and McKitrick. Wahl and Ammann say, “the Mann et al. reconstruction is robust against the proxy-based criticisms addressed. In particular, reconstructed hemispheric temperatures are demonstrated to be largely unaffected by the use or non-use of PCs to summarize proxy evidence from the data-rich North American region.” Moreover, I provide a link to a blog post written by climate scientists discussing McIntyre and McKitrick (the people the aforementioned satirists relies on) and the various “false claims” they make regarding Mann et al.‘s use of PCA.

Well, one might think this is all well and good. Science, after all, is an objective field in which one can appeal to evidence, and the evidence can be judged on its merits. If someone has a differing point of view, they can provide the scientific evidence to support it. So it would be reasonable to assume that evidence should be welcomed when there’s a contradictory claim. It helps you evaluate the claims being made. But it’s dangerous not to drink the Kool-Aid. The cost of not jumping on the politically-convenient (but scientifically-bankrupt) bandwagon of the septics is that I get derided for posting “a link dump”—because contradictory evidence isn’t welcome. Instead it constitutes “linking dumping” to “the cross-referencing, daisy-chain-refereeing bunch from the Mann gang.” I never link to Mann nor anyone from his “gang,” but these types of facts are not supposed to matter. (Although, even if I had linked to Rutherford et al., which includes Mann, and the defense they provide for the methods used in the Mann et al. paper, so what?) I ordinarily would not think much of this; it’s the typical rhetoric the septic retches up whenever confronted by an “inconvenient truth” (science). The thing is, you don’t typically see the type of anti-intellectualism displayed among self-professed scholars. The septics I usually speak with on a near-daily basis, though their rhetoric is virtually identical, don’t usually come from academia. Perhaps that says something. But when you get accused of being a “pedant” trying to enter “Valhalla,” I think this says something quite serious about the culture of this so-called “skepticism,” which has always had at its roots a derision of science and an acceptance anti-intellectualism. I personally find it to be pretty dangerous.

But let’s say we ignore the rhetoric and accept Dr. Banaian’s argument. Does it mean anything? It means nothing. We’re talking about a 1998 paper that has been updated by the authors and commented on multiple occasions over the years, and further supplemented by numerous, independent research that has all come to the same basic conclusions that Mann et al. came to in their paper. Any suggestion that the Mann et al. paper is crucially relied on to support the basic conclusions made by the IPCC or even that contemporary warming is anomalous is transparently absurd. So even if Mann et al.‘s paper was invalid (though it wasn’t), it says nothing about our understanding of climate reproduction or contemporary warming. The so-called “hockey stick” graph that appears in the Mann et al. paper is but one of many “hockey sticks” that exist in the literature on climate reconstruction. See, for example, this image put together by Robert Rhode; a similar image is found in the IPCC’s latest report (Chp. 6 of the WGI contribution) and elsewhere. Mann et al.’s (1999) graph is the plain blue line in Rhode’s image.

The literature on the issue is robust. Contemporary warming is anomalous—unprecedented within the past 1,000 years. The cause is explained by the theory of anthropogenic climate change. We can and should dismiss the feverish rhetoric as ado about absolutely nothing.

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