Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A fascinating interview of Saba Mahmood on religious minorities in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

The issue of minority rights in Muslim societies is often in the news these days. Plight of minorities sometimes show up on Irtiqa, as that is one of the countries that I am most familiar with. The state sanctioned persecution of Ahmadis, in particular, is hard to ignore. A new book by anthropologist Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, looks at minority rights in the middle east - with a focus on Egypt - and challenges some of the conventional thinking about secularism. Here is her book blurb:
The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil
equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains. 
Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
If you have an hour and a half and are interested in a detailed discussion of this topic, then please listen to this excellent interview of Saba Mahmood by Sherali Tareen as part of New Books in Islamic Studies podcast. All of the discussion here is fantastic but I was struck by two things in particular. First, that the issue of state neutrality towards religion in a secular state can be problematic when (and that is always the case) when cultural norms already favor a dominant religion (this discussion is around 48 minutes in). This was, of course, quite apparent with the recent Christmas holidays. Second, Saba Mahmood provides a fascinating example of the official status of Bahai'i faith in Egypt European Court of Human Rights especially regarding Muslim minorities. For example, the French ban on Muslim veil was upheld on a very similar reasoning (i.e. there is a freedom to believe but the public expression in the form of wearing the veil contradicts the national secular norm). So ultimately, the structure of the arguments is the same for the states to intervene in regulating the lives of minorities (she also looked at Greece with its Greek Orthodox religion).
(this discussion starts around 1 hour mark) and their right to display their religion. The state regulated Bahai'i faith by saying that they are free to believe in their faith as citizens of Egypt but not to a public express their religion. And this public expression included public prayers or their places of worship or even on a identification of their religion on the national identification card. So there is freedom of religion but the state has the right to regulate any public expressions that can go against the identity and norms of the state - and because Egypt's identity is Muslim, they can regulate Bahai'i expressions as they are not considered Muslims within the Egyptian state. But here is the twist (at 1:05): Saba Mahmood finds a parallel reasoning in the

You should listen to the whole interview to get the full gist of the arguments. For a broader history, listen to 10 minutes to 41 minutes, and for the discussion mentioned above, check out 48minutes to 1:10.

Here is the link to the interview again. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher" - A science fiction novel and a concept music album from Pakistan

by Salman Hameed


Occasionally you run into a project that completely blows you away (in a good way! Homeland Security is watching so one has to clarify things). Here is one such project by music producer Zohaib Kazi: Ismail ka Urdu Sheher. It is science fiction novel and a concept album - and now it also has an animated video to go along with this. I haven't had a chance to get a hold of the novel, but here is the premise:
The story of Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher draws on science fiction to narrate the journey of a futuristic Earth's Large Hadron Collider experiment whose repercussions have had a ripple effect on the fabric of the universe, challenging the very existence of a distant planet. Ismail Alset, who is the foremost scientist of that world, stands clueless and follows 'breadcrumbs' in hope to find answers to the calamity, a journey which will lead to bigger revelations about the universe and his personal life.
You can watch the animated video Wake up/Jaago here (I couldn't embed it here - but it is definitely worth a trip to the land of Facebook). The video itself is a product of several years and was "was produced through stop motion rotoscope process, comprising over 5000 digitally hand drawn frames".

Here are two other videos from album - and both are moody, haunting, and spectacular. Here is chapter 4,  Kinara - 'Supnoon ka Sheher' (As described in the beginning, Kinara is the financial and technological capital of the distant planet Elaan):
Kinara 'Sapnon ka Sheher' by Zohaib Kazi feat. Omran Shafique and Sara Haider from Zohaib Kazi on Vimeo.

And here is chapter 3, Black Coffee - 'Khwabon mein':
Zohaib Kazi - Black Coffee feat. Abbas Ali Khan, Omran Shafique and Sara Haider from Zohaib Kazi on Vimeo.

You can listen to five tracks from Ismail ka Sheher here.

Also, I was not aware of Zohaib Kazi's E.P from 2012: Butterfly in Space. The last song there, Cosmic Orchestra, is set to Carl Sagan's words on the Pale Blue Dot.

All of this made my day today - and thanks to Zakir Thaver for pointing me to this work. Zakir himself is busy giving finishing touches to his ambitious documentary about Abdus Salaam

Monday, December 21, 2015

Positive Nature editorial on nascent German efforts to to incorporate Syrian refugees into the education system

by Salman Hameed

Last month I had posted about fellowships for refugee scholars by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. This week's Nature has an editorial that lauds German efforts in this direction and highlights the potential benefits both to the country's scientific endeavor as well as in countering the rising xenophobia:
To integrate hundreds of thousands of traumatized, mostly Muslim, war refugees into Western society is a massive social challenge. But, contrary to what some critics seem to assume, early signs show that the young refugees — and under-25s make up around half of the influx — will not be inclined to accept social welfare and sit back idly for long. 
Robbed of their hopes and dreams at home, many will grasp the opportunities offered.
And many will be eager to learn. If admitted into Germany’s well-oiled education and science system (and into its booming labour market at large), they can be a boon rather than a burden to the country’s knowledge-based economy. 
German universities and science organizations are aware of the responsibility to these displaced people and the opportunity they represent. The messages they send in favour of openness and plurality — defining features of any honest science — are laudable at a time when xenophobia is on the rise elsewhere. 
Thanks to several programmes and initiatives launched by the German science community in recent months, refugee students can access university education and doctoral-research opportunities, and qualified refugee scientists and scholars can participate in advanced science at research institutes across Germany. These initiatives are much-needed and deserve every respect.
Another article in the same issue highlights the role social scientists can and are playing in helping with the refugee crisis:
Social scientists studying the flow of refugees into Germany want to discover something themselves: how many of the incoming people are, like Khamis, well-qualified, motivated and eager to learn — a boon for the economy. These migration researchers say that Germany has become a case study in the difficulties of suddenly integrating a large group of culturally diverse foreigners into a society; the nation has registered nearly one million asylum-seekers this year, more than half of them from Syria. It is the highest such influx in Western Europe. 
After a short-lived wave of hospitality in September, when chancellor Angela Merkel promised that Germany would be a welcoming host to the persecuted, many citizens and some right-leaning politicians have begun to voice concerns, painting a picture of a Muslim-dominated parallel society of poorly trained recipients of social welfare. 
Research may be able to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and aid the urgent process of resettling refugees by revealing more about migrants’ skills and cultural values, says David Schiefer, a Berlin-based psychologist with a German advisory body on migration and integration who is planning interviews with refugees. “We need to give these people a voice,” he says.
An extensive program and set of resources devoted to this would be extremely valuable:
In a strategy paper seen by Nature, a group from seven Max Planck institutes, in response to a call for research ideas by the society’s president, Martin Stratmann, has outlined a variety of research needs around humanitarian migration, from international law and human-rights issues to health and gender studies. 
Marie-Claire Foblets, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, plans to ask a culturally diverse group of refugees — including guest students at the University of Halle-Wittenberg — for accounts of their lives and experiences. Other questions, such as those concerning refugees’ citizenship and civil rights, the potential lure of extremism, and the fate of children who might be staying with radicalized parents, will require the involvement of law experts, criminologists, educators and others, she says.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription). 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Deciphering the Indus Script

by Salman Hameed

This is one of the few undeciphered languages left in the world. A few weeks ago, Nature had a nice overview of the status of decipherment:
The Indus civilization flourished for half a millennium from about 2600 bc to 1900 bc. Then it mysteriously declined and vanished from view. It remained invisible for almost 4,000 years until its ruins were discovered by accident in the 1920s by British and Indian archaeologists. Following almost a century of excavation, it is today regarded as a civilization worthy of comparison with those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as the beginning of Indian civilization and possibly as the origin of Hinduism. 
More than a thousand Indus settlements covered at least 800,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was the most extensive urban culture of its period, with a population of perhaps 1 million and a vigorous maritime export trade to the Gulf and cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia, where objects inscribed with Indus signs have been discovered. Astonishingly, the culture has left no archaeological evidence of armies or warfare. 
Most Indus settlements were villages; some were towns, and at least five were substantial cities (see 'Where unicorns roamed'). The two largest, Mohenjo-daro — a World Heritage Site listed by the United Nations — located near the Indus river, and Harappa, by one of the tributaries, boasted street planning and house drainage worthy of the twentieth century ad. They hosted the world's first known toilets, along with complex stone weights, elaborately drilled gemstone necklaces and exquisitely carved seal stones featuring one of the world's stubbornly undeciphered scripts.
The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling 'unicorn'. These are inscribed on miniature steatite (soapstone) seal stones, terracotta tablets and occasionally on metal. The designs are “little masterpieces of controlled realism, with a monumental strength in one sense out of all proportion to their size and in another entirely related to it”, wrote the best-known excavator of the Indus civilization, Mortimer Wheeler, in 1968. 
Of course, contemporary politics is not too far from these conversation:
In the 1990s and after, many Indian authors — including some academics — have claimed that the Indus script can be read in a form of early Sanskrit, the ancestral language of most north Indian languages including Hindi. In doing so, they support the controversial views of India's Hindu nationalist politicians that there has been a continuous, Sanskrit-speaking, Indian identity since the third millennium bc. 
Whatever their differences, all Indus researchers agree that there is no consensus on the meaning of the script. There are three main problems. First, no firm information is available about its underlying language. Was this an ancestor of Sanskrit or Dravidian, or of some other Indian language family, such as Munda, or was it a language that has disappeared? Linear B was deciphered because the tablets turned out to be in an archaic form of Greek; Mayan glyphs because Mayan languages are still spoken. Second, no names of Indus rulers or personages are known from myths or historical records: no equivalents of Rameses or Ptolemy, who were known to hieroglyphic decipherers from records of ancient Egypt available in Greek. 
Third, there is, as yet, no Indus bilingual inscription comparable to the Rosetta Stone (written in Egyptian and Greek). It is conceivable that such a treasure may exist in Mesopotamia, given its trade links with the Indus civilization. The Mayan decipherment started in 1876 using a sixteenth-century Spanish manuscript that recorded a discussion in colonial Yucatan between a Spanish priest and a Yucatec Mayan-speaking elder about ancient Mayan writing.
But progress has been made:
Indus scholars have achieved much in recent decades. A superb three-volume photographic corpus3 of Indus inscriptions, edited by the indefatigable Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, was published between 1987 and 2010 with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; a fourth and final volume is still to come. The direction of writing — chiefly right to left — has been established by analysis of the positioning of groups of characters in many differing inscriptions. The segmentation of texts containing repeated sequences of characters, syntactic structures, the numeral system and the measuring system are partly understood. 
Views vary on how many signs there are in the Indus script. In 1982, archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao published a Sanskrit-based decipherment with just 62 signs4. Parpola put5 the number at about 425 in 1994 — an estimate supported by the leading Indus script researcher in India, Iravatham Mahadevan. At the other extreme is an implausibly high estimate6 of 958 signs, published this year by Bryan Wells, arising from his PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Nevertheless, almost every researcher accepts that the script contains too many signs to be either an alphabet or a syllabary (in which signs represent syllables), like Linear B. It is probably a logo-syllabic script — such as Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs — that is, a mixture of hundreds of logographic signs representing words and concepts, such as &, £ and %, and a much smaller subset representing syllables. 
As for the language, the balance of evidence favours a proto-Dravidian language, not Sanskrit. Many scholars have proposed plausible Dravidian meanings for a few groups of characters based on Old Tamil, although none of these 'translations' has gained universal acceptance.
I am also surprised that the pace of excavation has slowed down in the last few decades. This is really too bad. And I had not heard about Ganweriwala before reading this article:
On the ground in Pakistan and India, more inscriptions continue to be discovered — although not, as yet, any texts longer than 26 characters. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the known Indus sites have been excavated. The difficulty — apart from funding — is the politically troubled nature of the region. Many of the most promising unexcavated sites lie in the Pakistani desert region of Cholistan near the tense border with India. One such is the city of Ganweriwala, discovered in the 1970s and apparently comparable in size with Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. 
If these sites, and some others within Pakistan and India, were to be excavated, there seems a reasonable prospect of a widely accepted, if incomplete, decipherment of the Indus script. It took more than a century to decipher the less challenging Mayan script, following several false starts, hiatuses and extensive excavation throughout the twentieth century. Indus-script decipherers have been on the much barer trail — older by two millennia — for less than a century, and excavation of Indus sites in Pakistan has stagnated in recent decades.
Fascinating stuff. Read the full article here

Friday, December 04, 2015

Construction permit rescinded for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

This is quite astonishing! The battle over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been going on for years and I did not think that the opponents of the telescope had much chance of victory. But earlier this year, protestors blocked the road to Mauna Kea summit, thus halting the start of TMT construction. This resulted in arrests and it seemed like it was only a momentary delay. But somehow the protestors kept the momentum going and the Hawai'i Supreme Court decided to revisit the issue of construction permit. The construction was again set to begin two weeks ago, but the court halted it until its verdict on the issue. And now the verdict is in - and the court has rescinded the construction permit for the telescope:

The Board of Land and Natural Resources (Board) issued the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (UH) a permit to construct a 180-foot high astronomical observatory within a conservation district on Mauna Kea over the objections of Native Hawaiians and others, who sought a contested case hearing to fully assess the effects of the project prior to making a decision of whether to issue the permit. Instead, the Board approved the permit but included a condition that, if a contested case proceeding was initiated, then construction could not commence until the Board conducted such a hearing. The Board’s procedure of holding a contested case hearing after the permit has already been issued does not comply with our case law...nor with due process under the Hawaiʻi Constitution
You read the full decision here. I will have more to say on this. But I think this is the right decision. I think astronomers (not all!) were/are on the wrong side of history on this one. There was a lot of feet dragging and most of the "compromises" made by astronomers  were minimal - and only after a lot of protests. The runner-up site for TMT was Atacama desert in Chile. I think that is the place for TMT!

In the mean time, here is a NASA image of Mauna Kea from the International Space Station taken on Nov 1 and released just a couple of days before the court decision (!): 


From the NYT article about the recent decision: 
With the court’s ruling, the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation and its board will have to start the permit process over — or, in the words of Deborah Ward, one of those who had challenged the permit in court, “take their toys and play in another sandbox.” 
In a Twitter message, the telescope consortium said, “This is not a judgment against T.M.T., but rather against the state’s process in granting the permits.” 
Later, Henry Yang, chairman of the telescope’s board, said in a statement: “T.M.T. will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward.” 
The telescope board is scheduled to meet again in February but could convene earlier.
Full article here

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pew poll on Muslim views on ISIS

by Salman Hameed

After the Paris attacks, the nonsensical chorus of "why don't Muslims condemn ISIS" has grown even louder. To make things worse, even when there is a report on such opposing voices, the story is framed in a way to further aggravate the problem. This was the NYT story with the headline From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State and the story almost gives the impression that "finally" someone in the Muslim world (yes - all that "monolithic" entity!) is standing up to ISIS. And of course, the NYT conveniently forgets that Iran has been actively fighting ISIS for a while, and that several other Muslim countries are engaged in fighting the Islamic State as well (even when it is politically complicated, as is the case with Turkey). With all that in context, here are the views of Muslims in 11 countries:


This is not much of a surprise. The ideological battle is actually not with ISIS - but with those who are using ISIS to make simplistic statements as "ISIS is Islamic", etc. By the way, it is interesting that 62% of Pakistanis don't have an opinion on ISIS. I don't know why this is the case. It is quite possible that people genuinely don't know about ISIS - it is after all far from Iraq/Syria/Libya and when it comes to violence against civilians, there are local groups (such as the various flavors of Taliban or the LeT) that are of bigger concern. Furthermore, through Pakistani lens, ISIS may be seen as anti-US, and that may balance out its savagery (yes - opinion of US in Pakistan is quite low). In case you are wondering about religious affiliations, here is the division:


This follows more or less to the country's trend, irrespective of religion. Therefore, it is not that surprising that 5% of Christians in Burkina Faso or 6% Buddhists in Malaysia have a favorable view of ISIS. But Nigeria is one exception here - but again, this may possibly be due to Boko Haram's connection to the group.

In any case, polls like this do not capture the complexities on the ground. Nevertheless, they sometimes do give a broad brush picture what is going on. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

A new intellectual biography of Ibn Khaldun

by Salman Hameed

As with many medieval Muslim thinkers, either Ibn Khaldun is ignored or his words are over-interpreted. If you are interested, there is a new book out called The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man by Stephen Frederic Dale. Here is a review by David Bahr:
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is your favorite historian’s favorite historian and chances are you have never heard his name. Though his principal work, the Muqaddimah (literally the “introduction”), has been pronounced “the most comprehensive and illuminating
analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere” by Arnold Toynbee, there are relatively few studies devoted to his philosophic science of history. It is thus a most welcome bit of fortune when a rare book on Ibn Khaldun is published, and more welcome still to discover the book—The Orange Trees of Marrakesh by Stephen Frederic Dale—is an intellectual biography geared toward the non-specialist. 
Mr. Dale’s book is important for two reasons. First, it takes pains to place Ibn Khaldun in his historical context. Raised in intellectual, upper class North Africa, Ibn Khaldun became a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence while simultaneously nurturing an interest Greco-Islamic philosophy. Like his two contemporaries, Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas (themselves both influenced by both Greek and Islamic philosophy), Ibn Khaldun’s writing is crucial for understanding the tension between reason and revelation so important to the vitality of the West. Second, Dale’s robust presentation of Ibn Khaldun’s thought, especially as encountered in his Muqaddimah, builds the case that his political insights should be rated alongside Aristotle, Montesquieu, Smith, and Durkheim. 
Here is a bit more about Ibn Khaldun and why his work almost disappeared for a few hundred years:
To give a sense of Ibn Khaldun’s approach to history in the Muqaddimah here are the somewhat ambitious standards he sets himself: 
"Know the principles of politics, the … nature of existent things, and the differences among nations, places, and periods, with regards to the ways of life, character qualities, customs, sects, schools and everything else. His goal must be to have complete knowledge of the reasons for everything happening and be acquainted with the origin of every event. Then, he must check transmitted information with the basic principles [of nature and accident] he knows." 
Ibn Khaldun pursued two goals. He developed a new science of philosophic history and applied this same methodology to interpret the flux of North African and Andalusian history. What results is an immense work of learning that was the first to “analyze the nature of societies in a synchronistic study” rather than a “traditional narrative of events.” An apt moniker for Khaldun might be (and has been) the “Montesquieu of the Arabs,” though as Dale notes, it is more precise to affirm the reverse. 
Part of Ibn Khaldun’ story, usefully pursued by Dale, regards his disappearance from the intellectual world stage. As Dale notes, not one scholar either in the Islamic world or in Europe embraced Ibn Khaldun’s historical methodology. Not only did Ibn Khaldun lack the institutional support to disseminate his ideas, but the Muqaddimah is a notoriously difficult text, presupposing a deep background in Greek thought that would not have been available to the average man in the Arab world. A long lasting consequence of these difficulties was that Europe did not gain exposure to Ibn Khaldun until the late 17th century, and he only became widely known after the 19th. Today, Ibn Khaldun and the Muqaddimah are seen more as “an exotic product of a foreign civilization, rather than as an important milestone in an intellectual tradition that linked Greeks with Muslims and Europeans in a common philosophic culture. 
Read the full review here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Germany steps forward with fellowships for refugee scholars

by Salman Hameed

This is an excellent initiative to help scholars who are threatened by war or prosecution in their own countries. This program is jointly sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German Foreign Office. Here are the details:
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office are jointly planning a new programme to support researchers who are threatened by war and persecution in their own countries and are seeking sanctuary in Germany: the Philipp Schwartz Initiative will provide German universities and research institutions with the means to host foreign researchers for a period of two to three years so that they can continue their work. In 2016 and 2017 respectively, approximately 20 researchers should benefit in this way. The final figures will depend on the financing, which is currently under discussion. 
The Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced the initiative in June, saying “By becoming actively involved today, we are, in a small way, repaying other countries for what they did for German researchers decades ago.” 
“We want to send a signal about the openness of German science. We intend to help people who can benefit our science system but who will be desperately needed in their own countries when it comes to rebuilding them in the hopefully not too distant future,” said Helmut Schwarz, the President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. 
A further objective of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative is to generate a consciousness in Germany for the situation of researchers who have experienced displacement. With the help of information events, conferences and advisory services – provided, amongst others, by experienced organisations like the Scholars at Risk Network and the Scholar Rescue Fund – German universities and research institutions will be able to acquire and share information on the ways in which they can help. 
The programme is named after the Jewish pathologist Philipp Schwartz who had to flee Germany from the Nazis in 1933 and subsequently founded the “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (Emergency Society of German Scholars Abroad).
More information about the initiative here.

Also this earlier post on University Education for Syrian and Other Refugees.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nature's map of Chinese Science Collaborations

by Salman Hameed

In terms of scientific research output, China is now just behind the US (in terms of "high-quality science" as defined by the journal Nature and that takes into account articles from 68 natural science journals).  Just this past week, Nature Index published a fascinating map of Chinese science collaborations, and it is clear from it that it is becoming a global science superpower:
After more than a decade of strong investment in research and higher education, China is becoming an important partner for the scientific powerhouses of North America and Europe, and a growing hub for international collaboration. Mapping the many Chinese international collaborations in the Nature Index (see 'China's global network') demonstrates the extent to which Chinese scientists have become innovative contributors to, and leaders of, many international scientific communities. 
Like many nations, China's biggest collaborator in the Nature Index is the United States, the biggest index contributor overall, with a collaboration score more than five times that of its next strongest collaborating country, Germany (See 'China's closest links'). For China a contributing factor is the large number of Chinese researchers who have spent time in the global science superpower. A large diaspora of Chinese-heritage scientists around the world, particularly in the United States, have forged bonds between researchers in China and elsewhere.
Here is the map of articles from 2014 (you can click on the figure to enlarge it):



I am surprised at the relatively small levels of collaborations with both India and Pakistan. And stranger still, Saudi Arabia is the 12th largest collaborator (though, much of that collaboration is driven by Chinese researchers - but still, interesting). Here is the map of Chinese international collaborators:

Perhaps, most importantly, Nature Index reveals that Chinese collaborators are not just getting their names on the papers, but are major contributors to the papers (and skewed towards China in the case of UK):

It is just fascinating to see the stunning rise of China in the last decade or so in almost all spheres of life. You can read the full report here (you may need subscription to access it). 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Young Iraqis promoting science, evolution, and broader scientific thinking

by Salman Hameed


When it comes to Iraq, certain type of stories dominate the news media. They are mostly about violence, political issues, or sectarian strife. Or they focus on cultural issues (see for example see this documentary about a Iraqi Heavy Metal band). It is therefore wonderful to hear about a couple of Iraqi groups promoting science. From Niqash.org (H/T juancole.com): 
One of the most unique groups in this category is made up of young men and women who are fierce promoters of science as a partial answer to their community’s sectarian conflicts. The group is called Real Sciences and works together with another associated group called the Iraqi Translation Project. Both groups have their own websites and they also have popular Facebook pages – boasting over 130,000 Likes from fans altogether - and they regularly post translations of popular scientific articles on everything from why human beings enjoy running to how cavemen used their hearing to, most recently, the apparent presence of waterways on the planet Mars. 
Here are the websites of Real Sciences and Iraqi Translation Project. These sites look quite good and all of this is really laudable. But when I hear about people getting threats for talking about evolutionary theory, I become a little bit more skeptical. For example, here is the paragraph on this topic:
The group's translators often venture into fields not common among local Arabic readers such as the subject of evolutionary psychology. They also often cross red lines when topics touch on creationism versus Darwin's theory of evolution. One member has translated many important books by authors like British philosopher A.C. Grayling, US particle physicist and religious sceptic Victor Stenger, and US historian and noted atheist Richard Carrier. But he cannot be credited for his translations because he would be in danger; he uses an alias.
Lumping evolution with prominent atheist activists like A.C. Grayling, the late Victor Stenger, and Richard Carrier is problematic. Let me be clear here. I don't think they should be getting any threats - and they should be absolutely free to write about atheism as well. But unless you are in ISIS territory (but then they banned mathematics and social studies along with evolution) or are linking evolution to atheism, the reaction to evolution is usually not that strong. In neighboring Iran, evolution certainly is not an issue. But then I don't know much about Iraq, and evolution may indeed be a "red line"...but I will keep a grain of salt with me. Back to the article:
The group (Real Sciences) was formed in 2012 because the members’ passion for science was not being fulfilled by the local market. The Iraqi book market predominantly sells religious books, which often promote hatred and sectarianism, books about Communism and old pan-Arab style books with nationalistic leanings. There are not many science books or magazines available at Mutanabi Street, Baghdad's famous street of book sellers, which pretty much represents what is available in Iraq; if you can't find it on Mutanabi Street, you won't find it elsewhere in Iraq. 
With the occasional exception, the scientific magazines and books for sale on Mutanabi
Street were either very scarce or mostly outdated. In 2011 the Real Sciences group was formed, with less than five people at that stage. In 2013, some of the group members with a better command of English started the Iraqi Translation Project, volunteering to translate important scientific materials and promoting scientific breakthroughs via social media. Today the two groups work in parallel even though they no longer share members and are independent of one another.
Members of the Real Sciences group and the Iraqi Translation group helped immensely with the preparation of this populist initiative, volunteering not only their time and effort but also their personal libraries, only to find themselves sidelined by other members of the group later on. 
Security threats are the main problem hindering the group’s progress on the ground today, says Atheel Fawzi, one of the Real Sciences group’s Baghdad-based founders. In fact, many of the group members have left the country over the years even while their presence on social media is still very strong. 
“While the group’s members were effective contributors at many independent and government-sponsored conferences and events, the fear of personal prosecution and the exodus of many of our valuable friends in the group were what stopped us from organizing ourselves into a registered NGO,” Fawzi explains.
Read this fascinating article here

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

University Education for Syrian and Other Refugees

by Salman Hameed

As expected, things have gone south after the Paris attacks, and sane conversations have taken a hit. This is particularly true of anything about refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Now 25 Republican governors - including that of Massachusetts - are trying to block relocation of Syrian refugees to their respective states. If you are wondering how many Syrian refugees have been accepted so far by the US? According to the NYT, that number is just 1900 over four years! And if you want to see how low things are, some of the Republican candidates (Jeb!) want to select (or deselect) refugees based on their religion.

But there are other serious issues as well. The civil war in Syria has displaced millions of people, including those who were in colleges and universities. To gain any kind of stability in the future, it is vital that they get higher education. The prospects of reasonable jobs will be even slimmer without these opportunities. This is not just a moral issue (though that should be enough to act), but it is also about the stability of both the Middle East as well as the larger world. A few weeks ago, Nature brought up this issue:
Human-rights organizations are calling on universities and governments worldwide to invest more in the education of the hundreds of thousands of student refugees who are
Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Image from Nature
fleeing war-torn regions of the Middle East. 
They warn that the countries in conflict risk losing a future generation of scientists, engineers, physicians, teachers and leaders — and that university-aged refugees who have found shelter elsewhere represent a crucial opportunity to reverse some of the lost intellectual capital. “Each scholar and student that we lose now deepens the challenge of restoring the region when the violence eventually subsides,” says Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, a human-rights group headquartered in New York City. 
Quinn also cautions that allowing an educational void to develop in the Middle East could create a fertile recruiting environment for radical militias and terrorists. “It is deeply in the interest of Europe and the West to protect and invest in the intellectual capital of the region,” he says. “The failure to invest massively is foolishly shortsighted.”
Here are some numbers for refugees:
Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in Libya and other North African countries, have led to a record number of refugees. By the end of 2014, 60 million people worldwide were seeking refuge either in safer parts of their countries or abroad, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is the highest number ever recorded, and almost double the 37.5 million displaced individuals a decade earlier. 
Syria, which had a population of nearly 21 million before the ongoing conflict there began four years ago, has produced the most refugees, with 7.6 million people displaced internally and a further 4 million forced to flee the country. Around 10% of those people are of university age, estimates James King, who is a senior researcher at the Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a non-profit, educational-exchange organization in New York City. 
Yet the university system in Syria has all but collapsed, and few of the young people who have left the country are receiving higher education. Of those refugees who fled abroad, most have found temporary shelter in neighbouring countries — Turkey is hosting some 1.8 million, Lebanon 1.2 million and Jordan 630,000 — but only around 5% of the university-aged refugees in these countries are enrolled at local institutions, according to a March report funded by the European Commission (see go.nature.com/9ljpbl). 
Before the conflict began, 26% of young adults in Syria were receiving tertiary education. That leaves hundreds of thousands of people who would normally be attending university going without.
Of course there are other challenges as well. Places like Turkey have pressure to accommodate their own qualified graduates. Then there are challenges of language in another country. Plus, many of the refugees don't have the documents to show their prior academic records. All of this is not even counting the daily struggle of survival as a refugee in another country, and if they can even afford to go to a university - both in terms of time and money.

There are some good signs regarding this:
Scholarships are available. The IIE-led Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, a network of higher-education institutions worldwide that was created in 2012, has provided US$4.5 million to support 333 Syrian students, including 158 scholarships to attend universities in Western countries. At least 20 similar initiatives also offer scholarships to institutions across the globe. However, demand far outstrips supply: these combined efforts have been able to provide only around 7,000 students with some form of tertiary education. 
Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the IIE, notes the sheer scale of the crisis. “No organization or country is set up to deal with it,” he says, “The only thing we can do is — one by one, family by family, scholar by scholar, student by student — try to help individuals.” 
He also says that humanitarian efforts have tended to focus on saving lives and relieving misery among those fleeing conflict. “Education is the orphan of all these crises,” he says. “People are so concerned about food, water, shelter and other basics, and we haven’t thought enough about education.” The 1.5% of global humanitarian aid that goes to education, meanwhile, is spent largely on primary and secondary schooling, not higher education, which traditionally has been seen as a luxury. 
There are signs that attitudes are changing. In May, the European Union’s trust fund for the Syrian crisis committed €12 million (US$14.5 million) to assist 20,000 Syrian refugees in obtaining higher education through scholarships and other means. As the European Commission report notes, however, scholarships cannot meet the enormous need, which would amount to billions, not millions, of euros. 
It would be more cost effective to provide direct financial aid to universities in the countries with the most Syrian refugees, the report states
You can read the full article here (though you will need Nature subscription).

Now reading all this, please ponder on some of the thoughtless comments of several of the Republican governors and Presidential candidates regarding refugees. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

New Science ka Adda video: Urdu Floating at the Edge of Our Solar System

by Salman Hameed

We have been creating Science ka Adda videos in Urdu for the past 10 months. We are still experimenting and working on the format. In this episode, we have a new title sequence as well as English subtitles. This is the work of a team of some fantastic Hampshire College students that have been working with me. Here is the video:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Glenn Greenwald on Sam Harris, New Atheism, and Liberal Values

by Salman Hameed

Glenn Greenwald's name these days is, of course, associated with Edward Snowden and the breaking of the NSA story. But he has been arguing for civil liberties for a long time. If you have an hour, check out this excellent interview where Glenn mostly talks about Sam Harris and his anti-Islam stance (towards the end, there is also a discussion on the Snowden affair). There are two things I want to highlight here. First, he correctly points out that going after Islam in the US in the existing climate is not exactly courageous, but in fact further serves to stoke fires of bigotry. An awareness of your audience and impact is crucial if you are writing for the public. Second, at the 27 minute mark, Glenn makes an excellent comparison of some of the anti-Islam rhetoric with the strategy of Neo-Nazi groups using Talmudic references for their own anti-Jewish propaganda purposes. Any way, listen to the full conversation - and also check out Glenn Greenwald's longer piece in the Guardian: Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Panel Discussion at Hampshire College: Historical and Contemporary Muslim Engagements with Science

by Salman Hameed


If you are in the area, please join us at Hampshire College this Monday evening for a panel discussion featuring three fantastic scholars: George Saliba, Asad Ahmed, Ehab Abouheif. The event is free and open to the public. This is also the launch of our new Science and Islam Videos Portal, but more on that in a separate post. Here are the details of the panel discussion:

Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) Presents:

A Panel Discussion on 
Historical and Contemporary Muslim Engagements with Science

Panelists include: 
Dr. George Saliba, Columbia University
Dr. Asad Ahmed, University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Ehab Abouheif, McGill University
Moderator: Dr. Salman Hameed

Monday, October 5th, 2015
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

The Muslim world is currently going through enormous changes. This is not entirely surprising, as more than half the population in the Middle East, and in much of the larger Muslim world, is under the age of 25. This is also the first generation to have been fully affected by the spread of mass education in the region and the global technological revolution of the past two decades. It is therefore not a leap to predict that this generation will interpret Islam and shape its relation to the modern world for decades to come, and that these interpretations will be influenced by global concerns and technological developments. This panel brings together three eminent scholars from the fields of history of science, Islamic studies, and evolutionary biology to talk about ways Muslims have engaged with the sciences both historically and in the contemporary world. This event coincides with the launch of an online portal, designed by SSiMS, that provides a content evaluation of approximately 200 online videos on the topic of Islam and Science (Please visit the portal site atwww.scienceandislamvideos.com).


Panelist biographies: 
Dr. George Saliba is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Dr. Saliba is considered one of world's leading authorities on the history of Arabic and Islamic Science. He is the author of Late Arabic Scientific Commentaries: Their Role and Their Originality (2014) and Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2007).

Dr. Asad Ahmed is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Ahmed specializes in early Islamic social history and pre-modern Islamic intellectual history, with a special focus on the rationalist disciplines, such as philosophy, logic, and astronomy. His current focus is the period ca. 1200-1900 CE, especially with reference to the Indian subcontinent.  He is the author of The Religious Elite of the Early Islamic Hijaz (2011) and Avicenna’s Deliverance: Logic (2011).

Dr. Ehab Abouheif is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology in Department of Biology at McGill University, Canada. Dr. Abouheif's primary research focuses on the evolution of ants and his articles have been published in prestigious journals, like Science. He is also the co-director of McGill Centre for Islam and Scienceand is actively engaged in dialogue over Islam and evolution.

Moderator: Dr. Salman Hameed is the Director of SSiMS. He is also the Charles Taylor Chair and Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College.

For more information on SSiMS, please visit www.hampshire.edu/ssims/

This event has been made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

New SkA episode: How the idea of extraterrestrials became scientific? (in Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

Here is our new episode of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (SkA). We are now hoping get an episode out every first of the month. In this episode we talk about aliens:

We see aliens in the movies all the time. We do not yet have any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. And yet, for most scientists, it is a distinct possibility in the universe. In fact, two developments in the 19th century - one in theory and one in technique - made the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a scientific one. In this episode of Science ka Adda we look at those developments and ponder on the possibility of aliens on other worlds. For more videos in the series, please visit www.sciencekaadda.com or join us on Facebook at facebook.com/ScienceKaAdda .

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Conversation with Robert Wright on Muslims, Science and Evolution

by Salman Hameed

These past few months have been extraordinarily hectic and as a result I have been away from Irtiqa. Lets see if we can get back on track. Lets start with a conversation I had with Robert Wright for meaningoflife.tv. Wright has written some superb books, including The Evolution of God and The Moral Animal. Below is our entire hour long conversation. You can also find segmented highlights here. One of the topics we start off with is a 2008 paper of mine titled, Bracing for Islamic Creationism. It appeared in Science and has been referenced heavily on the topic of evolution rejection in the Muslim world. The problem is that I myself don't agree with my own 2008 paper (yes - further research can lead to different conclusions). I now think that there are complex ways that Muslims are responding to biological evolution - and many (definitely not all) even accept human evolution. In any case, I wanted to set this up as we start our conversation with that paper. Here is the full episode of The Wright Show:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

More digitized Islamic manuscripts now available

by Salman Hameed

You really don't have to leave your basement now. Digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available from several collections. This is an alphabetical list from a few years back. For example, here are 25,000 Arabic manuscripts from the British Library digitized by the Qatar Digital Library (several astronomy manuscripts are part of this), and manuscripts related to the history of Arabic and Persian medicine at Yale's Medical Historical Library. Now Princeton collection of Islamic manuscripts has been expanded and you can access it here:
A generous grant from the Virginia and Richard Stewart Memorial Fund, through Princeton University’s Council of the Humanities, has made it possible for the Princeton University Library to expand online digital access to its extensive holdings of Islamic manuscripts. More than 1,200 digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available for study online in the Islamic Manuscripts Collection of the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL). 
Professor Michael A. Cook, Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, notes that “Princeton’s great collections of Islamic manuscripts, acquired to support research in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, will be increasingly available to scholars all over the world, as the Library continues to digitize its holdings.” The Library has the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in North America and one of the finest such collections in the Western world. Holdings include nearly 10,000 volumes of Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other manuscripts of the predominantly Islamic world, written in Arabic script. Approximately two-thirds of them came to Princeton in 1942 as part of the Garrett Collection, donated by Robert Garrett (1875–1961), Class of 1897. Building on this extraordinary collection, the Library has continued to acquire Islamic manuscripts by gift and purchase. Now there are approximately 3,000 additional Islamic manuscripts with New Series and Third Series designations. Text manuscripts on virtually every aspect of Islamic learning, both religious and secular, are the chief strength. Princeton’s holdings also include Persian and Mughal illuminated manuscripts and miniatures. Other collections include European manuscripts written in Arabic script or containing translations. Arabic papyri are separately housed in the Princeton Papyri Collections. All of these holdings are in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, within Firestone Library.
More here

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Muslim scholars take a stance on climate change

by Salman Hameed

In a symposium in Istanbul last week, a group of Muslim scholars have urged Muslim countries to move away from fossil fuel and greenhouse gases in favor of more renewable sources. Here is the full  text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. In some ways it is not hard to justify such a claim from a  religious perspective - and so does this declaration:
This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium (mīzān) may soon be lost. As we humans are woven into the fabric of the natural world, its gifts are for us to savour. But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans. But our attitude to these gifts has been short-sighted, and we have abused them. What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy? How will we face our Lord and Creator?
This is a positive step and comes at the heals of a similar - but much thorough - Encyclical by the Pope (read the 184 page document here). This is also good timings (most likely deliberate) as world leaders are supposed to gather in Paris in a few months for a major climate change agreement. But it is unclear to me the impact of this statement my Muslim scholars. For example, will oil-producing countries - many of them Muslim-majority - going to change their policies? The rhetoric of climate change is actually hip (unless you are a Republican Presidential candidate in the US) and we see leaders using that language. But what is happening on the ground? There is definitely a move towards solar energy in the middle east and in south asia, and that is certainly good. On a very local level, here is a fantastic example of a genuine "Eco-Islam" in Tanzania (also see this book on Green Islam).  But then, as Saleem H. Ali, notes in an article from 2012, genuine environmentalism has not taken much root in many Muslim communities. There are some high profile environmental project as well, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. It is/was expected to showcase revolutionary renewable energy. While it is well behind schedule, it may still have an impact, if it is not seeking mere publicity of being a "zero-carbon-footpring" city.

All of this is to say, that it is fantastic that there is a discussion on Islamic position on climate change. If the world momentum is there for a broader action to combat climate change, such declarations will be a useful step for Muslim-majority countries that want to join in that effort.

Here is Bill McKibben on this Islamic Declaration:
By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored. 
But as the reality of climate change has grown steadily more apparent, all the thoughtful branches of humanity have begun to recognize that their philosophies and theologies need to be reconsidered in light of this new fact. Religion may be particularly prone to this rethinking: an understanding of God as all powerful and beneficent badly needs squaring with the reality that we are systematically dismantling our planet. The only ways out of this hole are to deny that it is happening, to insist that if it is happening God will intervene to prevent it, or to realize that as agents with free will we must take steps to rein ourselves in. The latter is obviously the mature course, and one that religious leaders across a variety of traditions are adopting. 
That adoption matters, at least in part because it throws into ever sharper relief the irresponsibility of the fossil fuel industry, which refuses to take seriously the climate challenge or to change its ways in any meaningful fashion. Oil executives may say that climate change is real, but their willingness to keep seeking out more hydrocarbons to burn exposes their true priorities. (If you thought climate change was an existential threat you would not go drill for oil in the Arctic, full stop.) Religious leaders (or scientists, or artists, or philosophers, or young people, or any of the other groups that have taken up this fight) may not yet have the power to break the fossil fuel companies’ political strength, but their insistence on reality provides a setting for possible quick change in the years ahead. Given the plummeting cost of solar power, for instance, the Muslim leaders’ call for 100 percent renewable energy need no longer be consigned to the distant future. 
and here is another reason for the importance of this declaration:
One of the things that makes this particular document so interesting is the fact that a large share of the world’s hydrocarbons lie beneath Muslim nations, be it Mideast oil or Indonesian coal. One doesn’t expect the Saudis to shut down the Ghazar oil field as a result, but in the past they’ve played an obstructionist part in international negotiations. Now that the Islamic Declaration calls on world leaders to commit concretely to a zero-emissions strategy, pressure may begin to grow on the Saudi monarchy, and the upcoming Paris summit will show if it is starting to soften. Already Abu Dhabi plays host to the UN’s renewable research center, and even Riyadh started signaling earlier this year that the age of oil may soon be past (replaced with sunlight, a commodity that the Gulf nations also have in quantity). The head of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, which represents the 210 million Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim country, said he welcomed the declaration and was “committed to implementing all its recommendations,” potentially a big deal since his nation has some of the planet’s largest undeveloped coal reserves.
Read the full article here and the full text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change here

Monday, August 10, 2015

New episode of Science ka Adda (SkA): Pluto - A New World Again!

by Salman Hameed

For those who speak Urdu, here is the latest episode of Science ka Adda: Pluto - A New World Again!

Here is the description of the episode:
Pluto was discovered in 1930. Up until 2015, we did not know much about this little world in our Solar system. The flyby of The New Horizon spacecraft has revealed Pluto to be a fascinating object hosting tall mountains made up of ice, smooth plains with nitrogen ice flows, and a moon that features canyons that can several kilometers deep! In this episode of Science ka Adda (SkA), Salman Hameed examines some of the latest pictures from New Horizons spacecraft and talks about the mysteries that these pictures have opened up in our understanding of Pluto. And of course, he reaffirms his absolute support for redesignating Pluto as a planet! For more videos in the series, please visit sciencekaadda.com and for more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit hamarikainaat.com

Monday, August 03, 2015

Check out "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

by Salman Hameed


There is a good chance that you have heard of The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. I had also read about it and knew the general contours of the results. But I didn't know the specifics - especially the details that led to the shutting down of the experiment only six days into the 2-week project. Now there is a new fantastic film by the name of The Stanford Prison Experiment (now that makes it easy to know what the movie is about...) that dramatizes the experiment and, from what I have read, does a very good job of staying faithful to the events. It is an intense film (so, no - probably not a good date film) and has imagery that will remind you - though not to that level of savagery - of Abu Ghraib pictures. In the movie, Billy Cudrup plays psychologist Philip Zimbardo and he is excellent (as he was earlier in the fantastic film, Almost Famous). Here is Cudrup in the movie as young Zimbardo, and Zimbardo today:

Here is the trailer for the film (the movie is also available On Demand):


If you want to know more about the critique of the original experiment as well as the movie, then you should read this excellent article from The New Yorker, The real lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment:

Less than a decade earlier, the Milgram obedience study had shown that ordinary people, if encouraged by an authority figure, were willing to shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be painful and potentially lethal levels of electricity. To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors. Today, more than forty-five years later, many look to the study to make sense of events like the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib and America’s epidemic of police brutality. The Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; it’s said to show that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants. 
And yet the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment aren’t so clear-cut. From the beginning, the study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The article then goes on to do an excellent job of providing a thorough critique of the experiment and brings up a BBC study of a similar nature as well:
If the Stanford Prison Experiment had simulated a less brutal environment, would the prisoners and guards have acted differently? In December, 2001, two psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, tried to find out. They worked with the documentaries unit of the BBC to partially recreate Zimbardo’s setup over the course of an eight-day experiment. Their guards also had uniforms, and were given latitude to dole out rewards and punishments; their prisoners were placed in three-person cells that followed the layout of the Stanford County Jail almost exactly. The main difference was that, in this prison, the preset expectations were gone. The guards were asked to come up with rules prior to the prisoners’ arrival, and were told only to make the prison run smoothly. (The BBC Prison Study, as it came to be called, differed from the Stanford experiment in a few other ways, including prisoner dress; for a while, moreover, the prisoners were told that they could become guards through good behavior, although, on the third day, that offer was revoked, and the roles were made permanent.) 
Within the first few days of the BBC study, it became clear that the guards weren’t cohering as a group. “Several guards were wary of assuming and exerting their authority,” the researchers wrote. The prisoners, on the other hand, developed a collective identity. In a change from the Stanford study, the psychologists asked each participant to complete a daily survey that measured the degree to which he felt solidarity with his group; it showed that, as the guards grew further apart, the prisoners were growing closer together. On the fourth day, three cellmates decided to test their luck. At lunchtime, one threw his plate down and demanded better food, another asked to smoke, and the third asked for medical attention for a blister on his foot. The guards became disorganized; one even offered the smoker a cigarette. Reicher and Haslam reported that, after the prisoners returned to their cells, they “literally danced with joy.” (“That was fucking sweet,” one prisoner remarked.) Soon, more prisoners began to challenge the guards. They acted out during roll call, complained about the food, and talked back. At the end of the sixth day, the three insubordinate cellmates broke out and occupied the guards’ quarters. “At this point,” the researchers wrote, “the guards’ regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.” 
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly. 
This understanding might seem to diminish the power of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, in fact, it sharpens and clarifies the study’s meaning. Last weekend brought the tragic news of Kalief Browder’s suicide. At sixteen, Browder was arrested, in the Bronx, for allegedly stealing a backpack; after the arrest, he was imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial. (Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed.) While at Rikers, Browder was the object of violence from both prisoners and guards, some of which was captured on video. It’s possible to think that prisons are the way they are because human nature tends toward the pathological. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that extreme behavior flows from extreme institutions. Prisons aren’t blank slates. Guards do indeed self-select into their jobs, as Zimbardo’s students self-selected into a study of prison life. Like Zimbardo’s men, they are bombarded with expectations from the first and shaped by preëxisting norms and patterns of behavior. The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.
Read the full article here