Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hoodbhoy on Pakistan's nuclear test anniversary

Pervez Hoodbhoy has been a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons. Here is an excellent assessment by him on the 11th anniversary of Pakistan's nuclear tests - and at a time of crisis in Pakistan:
Some had imagined that nuclear weapons would make Pakistan an object of awe and respect internationally. They had hoped that Pakistan would acquire the mantle of leadership of the Islamic world. Indeed, in the aftermath of the 1998 tests, Pakistan’s stock had shot up in some Muslim countries before it crashed. But today, with a large swathe of its territory lost to insurgents, one has to defend Pakistan against allegations of being a failed state. In terms of governance, economy, education or any reasonable quality of life indicators, Pakistan is not a successful state that is envied by anyone.

Contrary to claims made in 1998, the bomb did not transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country. Again, the facts are stark. Apart from relatively minor exports of computer software and light armaments, science and technology remain irrelevant in the process of production. Pakistan’s current exports are principally textiles, cotton, leather, footballs, fish and fruit. This is just as it was before Pakistan embarked on its quest for the bomb. The value-added component of Pakistani manufacturing somewhat exceeds that of Bangladesh and Sudan, but is far below that of India, Turkey and Indonesia. Nor is the quality of science taught in our educational institutions even remotely satisfactory. But then, given that making a bomb these days requires only narrow technical skills rather than scientific ones, this is scarcely surprising.
This is the issue. Just having a bomb does not make a country more scientific. In fact, Pervez starts his article with the example of North Korea. What has it achieved by its nuclear tests other than the ability to blackmail international community? Putting aside the moral issues, we are still at least 60 years too late in making any breakthroughs in nuclear science. And of course, the threats that Pakistan face today cannot be deterred by its nuclear arsenal.
It was a lie that the bomb could protect Pakistan, its people or its armed forces. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. The threat to Pakistan is internal. The bomb cannot help us recover the territory seized by the Baitullahs and Fazlullahs, nor bring Waziristan back to Pakistan. More nuclear warheads, test-launching more missiles, or buying yet more American F-16s and French submarines, will not help.

Pakistan’s security problems cannot be solved by better weapons. Instead, the way forward lies in building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a society that respects the rule of law.

It is time for Pakistan to become part of the current global move against nuclear weapons. India — which had thrust nuclearisation upon an initially unwilling Pakistan — is morally obliged to lead. Both must announce that they will not produce more fissile material to make yet more bombs. Both must drop insane plans to expand their nuclear arsenals. Eleven years ago a few Pakistanis and Indians had argued that the bomb would bring no security, no peace. They were condemned as traitors and sellouts by their fellow citizens. But each passing year shows just how right we were.
Excellent point. Read the full article here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cults, sects, and the Scientology trial

On Wednesday I had a post about the Scientology trial in France and was wondering about the line between cults and religions. Well...Laura Sizer to the rescue. She sent me an entry from the Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Lindsay Jones; 2nd Edition). It is a fascinating read and it seems that there is no real consensus on these terms. Below are excerpts in the entry in the encyclopedia on Cults and Sects by Massimo Introvigne.
First on the usage of the terms:
The terms cult and sect are regarded as stereotype-loaded terms that are associated with new or unpopular religious movements, and these terms are thus mostly avoided by scholars. They are, however, widely used by the media and by groups (especially so-called anticult groups) that perceive certain new religious movements as objectionable and dangerous. In contemporary English, cult functions as the derogatory word, with sect reserved for less controversial groups. In French, German, Spanish, and Italian, the derogatory word is the local equivalent of sect, and the word cult is rarely used. Some dictionaries now translate the French secte and similar non-English words with cult rather than with sect. Originally, however, the English cult and sect were nonpejorative, scholarly terms.
But people have made attempts at the definition of cults and sects over the past century. It should be noted, however, that many of these definitions have largely been abandoned by sociologists. However, for a sampling, here is one of the earliest definitions by Ernst Troeltsch:
Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), a German theologian and sociologist, elaborated in the early twentieth century an influential distinction between churches, sects, and mysticism. Churches, according to Troeltsch, are religious groups well integrated into the larger society. A typical mark of this integration is the fact that most members are born into churches, rather than converted to them. Coming to conclusions similar to those of Max Weber (1864–1920), Troeltsch saw the sect as a religious movement where most members are first-generation converts. Troeltsch's "sect" refers to a group that is typically hostile or indifferent to the larger society and that may criticize churches as being "this-worldly." Sects prefer to remain poor and comparatively small rather than compromise their integrity. Sects, however, may eventually evolve into churches and move toward the mainstream, being replaced at the margins of the religious field by new sects. This happens less often, according to Troeltsch, with mysticism, which is less structured and organized, and survives as a sum of individual experiences.
But of course, almost all of these boundaries have problems. You can read more about those in the encyclopedia entry. More to the current concerns, cults and sects have become a loaded term today and sociologists prefer using new religious movements:
Eventually, Stark, Bainbridge, and Wilson all recognized that cult and sect were becoming ambiguous labels and should preferably be avoided. Sociologists may use them in a purely neutral, Troeltschian way, without implying that cults or sects are morally or socially "evil," or less acceptable than "genuine" religions. However, since the media, beginning in the 1970s, were using the words cult and sect to mean dangerous or even criminal religious organizations, most sociologists and historians of religion eventually accepted the proposal by Eileen Barker to use new religious movement as a value-free, nonderogatory substitute for sect or cult. The term new religions had already been introduced by various authors, but had gained more acceptance in literature written in French rather than in English. Although there are problems with the concept of "new religious movement," a large majority of scholars follow Barker's suggestion, and the small minority of academics still using sect or cult is in fact making an implicit statement of sympathy with the goals of the anticult movement.
Relevant to the ongoing Scientology trial in France, there is a fascinating discussion of the anticult movement, both in the US and abroad. Furthermore, it is bizarre to find out about their brainwashing accusations and their appalling deprogramming. It seems that the US courts have ruled against these deprogramming efforts - and heck we still have Gtmo in business. But Europe, it seems, is still buying into this:

For the anticult movement, the distinction is simple. Religions and churches are joined out of free will. Cults and sects (the distinction between the two being somewhat blurred) use mind control, or "brainwashing," in order to attract members and keep them within the fold. Although only a tiny minority of academic scholars throughout the world would take this distinction seriously, it has been used in parliamentary reports and laws (particularly in Europe) and is still widely quoted by the news media.
Based on the brainwashing arguments, private vigilantes started kidnapping adult members of new religious movements on behalf of their families, then subjected them to a sort of "counterbrainwashing" technique, which they called deprogramming. The largest organization of the American anticult movement, the Cult Awareness Network, was often accused of referring families to deprogrammers, although courts were initially tolerant of the practice.

Criticism of the brainwashing model was offered by the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, as well as by several prominent scholars of new religious movements. Scholarly criticism eventually reversed the trend toward belief in brainwashing in U.S. courts, starting in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in United States v. Fishman (1990). Some later decisions deviated in varying degrees from Fishman, so this ruling did not spell out once and for all the death of the brainwashing theory. Nevertheless, an important precedent had been set in the United States that later triggered a chain of events which led to the end of deprogramming and even of the largest American anticult organization, the Cult Awareness Network. Caught in the act of referring a family to deprogrammers, the Cult Awareness Network was sentenced to such a heavy fine that it was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1996 the court-appointed trustee-in-bankruptcy sold by auction the organization's files, name, and logo to a coalition of religious liberty activists led by Church of Scientology members.

This is where the current case against Scientology comes in and it builds on a 2001 amendment to the French criminal law that specifically targets cults and sects (also read this Guardian article from 2001: France arms itself with legal weapon to fight sects):
Although the brainwashing theory lost its momentum in U.S. courts in the 1990s, the suicides and homicides associated with the Temple Solaire in Switzerland and France in 1994 and 1995 gave the theory new impetus in Europe, where it influenced parliamentary reports (largely unaware of the complicated history of the U.S. controversy) and even resulted in a controversial amendment to the French criminal code in 2001. Paradoxically, although the concept of brainwashing was used during the Cold War in American anticommunist propaganda targeting Chinese Communists, the ideology of brainwashing was used in the People's Republic of China beginning in 1999 to distinguish between "evil cults" and legitimate "religions" in a campaign that initially targeted Falun Gong, but was extended to several underground Christian organizations. The same rationale was applied by the French government's several attempts to prevent "cults" such as the Church of Scientology from operating in France, starting from a parliamentary report published in 1996. In the United States, notwithstanding the prevailing attitude of the courts against the theory of brainwashing, brainwashing metaphors were widely used by the media to provide a quick explanation for why such groups as the Branch Davidians and even al-Qā‘idah should be seen as cults rather than religions.

Although only a handful of academics accept them, distinctions between legitimate "religions" and dangerous "cults" and "sects" remain popular in some European political milieus and in the media, while acquiring a new currency to explain suicide terrorism in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001.

Well...all of this places the Scientology trial in a whole new light [Read more about the French anti-cult measure here and here]. I can't believe I'm saying this - but my sympathies here are with Tom Cruise. And as a bonus, here is Colbert as Scientology's New Galactic Overlord - but also notice his balancing dig at Christianity:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Space Module: Colbert - Scientology's New Galactic Overlord
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scientology on trial in France

The Church of Scientology is on trial again - this time in France. It is being accused of fraud and manipulation:

The two main branches of the Church of Scientology in France go on trial today on charges of organised fraud in a case that could lead to the nationwide dissolution of the organisation.
The case centres on the testimony of a woman who claims she was preyed upon by the organisation at a time when she was "very psychologically fragile" and encouraged to spend more than €21,000(£18,000) – her life savings – on Scientology products including "self-purification packs''.

The investigating magistrate in charge of bringing the case against the church, Jean-Christophe Hullin, argues she was the victim of a deliberately manipulative system that exploits people's weaknesses to make money. He claims the church, which in some countries is considered a religion but in France is categorised as a sect, is "first and foremost a commercial business'' whose actions reveal "a real obsession for financial remuneration''.

Lawyers for the Scientologists deny any evidence of psychological manipulation and insist theirs is a system of belief like any other. They say the church is the victim of a "carefully orchestrated campaign" by French anti-cult organisations determined to close it down.

Well...couple of issues here: Is Scientology creepy? Yes. Is Scientology based on a crazy belief system? Yes. But are these reasons enough to shut it down (there are 45,000 Scientologists in France)? What exactly is meant by "dissolution" of a religious organization? Is this shutting down significantly different from persecution based on religious beliefs?

I don't have clear-cut answers to these. It seems that Scientology falls somewhere between psychics/mediums (yes - frauds) and mainstream religions (yes - unquestioned belief in the fantastical). I think they are as guilty of defrauding as psychic and mediums - who also take advantage of a fragile emotional states and pretend to have a supernatural ability. But then there have been cults, such as Heaven's Gate and the Branch Davidians, that have led to the deaths of its members. I don't think Scientology is close to this extreme. But can its members freely leave Scientology or do they get hassled afterwards? But then such social pressures are also common in other mainstream religions - such as Islam (though there is much disagreement about the punishment for apostasy in Islam).

I think we have to be very careful about not applying double-standards to small religions - no matter how strange or creepy. Scientology is often the target because of its high profile due to Hollywood celebrities. I think criticism should be focused on a specific custom rather than the whole religion. For example, if Scientology starts telling its members to stop vaccinating their kids (as far as I know, they don't do that - this is just an example) - then this particular practice should be targeted in the courts. But avoid a legal ban on the whole religion. In the mean time, here is a CNN report on the trial:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A congress to analyze the Galileo Affair

This year marks 400th anniversary of the first use of telescope for astronomical purposes. Thus, 2009 is being celebrated as the International Year of Astronomy. Of course, Galileo features prominently in these celebrations. As part of the activities, there is an interesting conference - or more accurately, a congress - on Galileo starting from today in Florence, Italy: The Galileo Affair: A Historical, Philosophical, & Theological Re-examination (May 26-30). What is interesting here is that it is not simply an academic gathering (it looks to be a hybrid - a mixture of academic and religious figures). Instead, it also brings together the very institutions that were directly involved in the Galileo Affair. Will this mixture help or hinder the discussion? I don't know. But it sounds fascinating.
The Niels Stensen Foundation, a Jesuit-run cultural center in Florence, Italy, has organized a world congress for spring 2009, inviting world experts to make a historical, philosophical and theological re-examination of the Galileo case in the light of the most recent scientific and historical research. The congress will take place in the most prestigious institutions and facilities in Florence.

For the first time after 400 years, members of the Vatican Observatory, the Pontifical Council for Culture, The Sciences Academy and many other Institutions, that were historically involved in the Galileo affair, are among the experts invited to the congress with a view to showing how "recent scientific and historical research" might alleviate the "tension and conflict" still clouding the relationship between the church and science.
You can check out the details here, and download the program poster here (pdf). Apart from George Coyne, I'm not familiar with any of the speakers.

As a side note, also check this earlier post: A new angle on the whole Galileo Affair.

Sufi Jihad in Somalia

Sufism is tolerant, mild and gentle. But it seems that some sufis are picking up arms against the more extreme forms of Islam in Somalia. However, I was struck by this picture in NYT last Sunday - a Qur'an, a gun, and a Playboy gun-strap. The sacred and the profane - all wrapped in a small inter-connected world.
Here is the caption for the picture: Moderate Sufi scholars recently did what so many others have chosen to do in anarchic Somalia: They picked up guns and entered the killing business, in this case to fight back against the Shabab, one of the most fearsome extremist Muslim groups in Africa.

Also see the full slideshow here and read the related article here.

While talking about Somalia, there was a ridiculous opinion piece in Wall Street Journal last month by Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University. I just found an excuse to fit it in this post. Now, I had heard good things about Prothero's book Religious Literacy: What every American needs to know -- and doesn't. But this WSJ piece is simply bizarre. While referring to the menace of contemporary Somali pirates, he makes a religious connection dating back to the early days of Islam. So what is his logic:

When Muhammad and his followers moved in the year 622 from the commercial center of Mecca to the more agricultural settlement of Medina, almost all of the emigrants found themselves out of work. They didn't own farming land in Medina, and because they had left behind suppliers and customers alike they couldn't trade as they had in Mecca. So Muhammad turned to the longstanding Arabian practice of the ghazu, or bounty raid. His men would capture camels and caravan drivers and hold them for ransom just as Somali pirates today are capturing and ransoming ships, supplies and sailors. Though many of the prophet's early bounty raids were unsuccessful, they did cause merchants to reroute their caravans, just as the Somali pirates are redrawing the shipping map in the Gulf of Aden.

Oh...and Muhammad used words in negotiations, and the Somali pirates today use words in negotiations. And Muhammad would plan for these raids, and these Somali pirates today plan for these raids. And Muhammad used horses and camels in raids, and the Somali pirates use .... oh wait. This last one doesn't really work.

Instead of looking at piracy as piracy (yes, pirates sometimes do hold people for ransom, and yes, piracy causes a change of routes for those affected by piracy), Prothero twists and turns to bring religion to the debate. Of course, he doesn't address why 99% of the Muslim population does not engage in maritime piracy - even though they hold Muhammad in the same high esteem as the Somalis. But then that would have exposed logical problems with the article - and the opinion piece would not have been published in the first place.

Read the Prothero piece here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Taking the six-day creation story

A somewhat amusing dig at those who take the six-day creation story literally (Young Earth Creationists) - such as the folks responsible for the unintentionally hilarious Creation Museum (tip But also keep in mind that most Christians do not subscribe to this view.

By the way, it would have been great to mention or visualize spontaneous creation of species (just popping out from nowhere) over the course of Earth's history. I always find it amusing when creationists assert that evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics (i.e. that the entropy always increases), but ignore the fact that their alternative method actually violates all sorts of laws, including the 2nd law and energy conservation. By the way, for clarification purposes, the point about the second law of thermodynamics is based on a misunderstanding of the law and also of evolution. Here check out 5 major misconceptions about evolution.

Friday, May 22, 2009

South Asian attitudes toward education for women

Here is a provocative opinion piece in Daily Dawn about gender issues in education in Pakistan (and also in India). While we are blaming the Taliban for pretty much eliminating education for women in the norther areas of Pakistan, Jawed Naqvi asks even if the Taliban are defeated, what kind of education will be waiting for women in those areas. This is an excellent way of bringing up serious problems not only with the education system, but also with the attitude of the society as a whole in dealing with women's education. Interestingly, he brings up evolution (or at least grappling with some of its basic ideas) right up front:
SUPPOSE one day, soon, the Taliban are militarily defeated and the government in Islamabad makes it mandatory for girls in Swat, as elsewhere in Pakistan, to attend schools.

What would they be taught? Going by conventional wisdom their curriculum would include a heavy dose of obscurantism, and a surfeit of gender biases. Our great grandmothers faced similar challenges across South Asia.

There are several theories and beliefs about something as basic as how human life came into existence. Let’s begin there, for the issue is at the heart of essential choices that must be made between a questioning spirit and hidebound faith. The question goes beyond the gender issue. Even in the supposedly liberated cultures straddling the United States a raging dispute exists over schoolchildren being exposed to the innocuous evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.

Harmonising scientific theories with creationary beliefs is required. Such beliefs are not peculiar to Semitic traditions alone. Hinduism has its own version about how the world came into existence. One would have thought that the sobriquet of ‘Islamic republic’ that comes as part of the package called Pakistan makes the resolution of such imminent questions a more daunting task. The example of the United States is illustrative of the malaise being more widespread. A wider definition of Taliban is required to understand how the demons of obscurantism lurk deep in the recesses of overtly secular and liberal societies.
Now, I'm not exactly clear of what he means by "Harmonising scientific theories with creationist beliefs". I think he is referring to harmonising scientific theories with religious views - and not creation per se. But the evolution example is perhaps more complicated as evolution is indeed included in in high school biology textbooks, though human evolution is missing. See an earlier post Creationist mess in Texas and evolution in textbooks in Pakistan and also watch a lecture on this by Anila Asghar. But the point of the article is not any specific subject. Instead, he points to the general attitude of the society:
The problem is two-fold. I am aware of fairly well-meaning activists of impeccable liberal ideals in Pakistan and India who would rather leave some of the questions unaddressed on the plea that defeating the Taliban was the more urgent issue. Other (trivial?) matters should be left for a more opportune time. We are blaming the Taliban for too many things. Before the onset of Talibanisation students in many Pakistani schools were for decades taught ‘k’ for kafir, or infidel. A former Indian envoy to Islamabad noted in his memoirs how young children were indoctrinated to hate Hindus. Fighting the bigots in Swat is a worthy cause, but what about the Taliban lurking within?

Part of the enormous difficulties faced by women under Taliban rule is but a replica of what was once mainstream society. A grand aunt who migrated to Pakistan in the 1970s left behind an ancestral home with telltale signs of subtle repression. We discovered under her bed a cluster of books about girlie romance. She was not allowed to read them as a girl. Lady Wazir Hasan, mother of Sajjad Zaheer, the much-feted founding father of progressive writers in undivided India would speak only Awadhi, as did all the elderly women of Awadh of our memory.

She was asked once what prevented her from learning Urdu. Her answer holds the key to the problem that girls face, not only in Swat but all across the so-called civilised swathes of South Asia. ‘Urdu padhai ke moheypaturia banhaio ka?’ (Do you want me to learn Urdu and become a courtesan?) Women were deprived of education then, lest they began reading the Zehr-i-Ishq, Gul Bakawli and other romantic masnavis that were the preserve of men. The issues faced by the girls of Swat will continue to mock us even after the global military campaign defeats their current tormentors.
My minor quibble aside, I really liked the way he used the Taliban to bring forth the topic of blatant gender discrimination that is so prevalent in South Asia. Read the full article here.

Natural-born supernaturalists

Here is Michael Shermer's quick short summary of why people believe that supernatural elements control the world (I'm not too crazy about using the terms, patternicity and agenticity (related to theory of mind), but the underlying principles are summarized well here). So why we ascribe control of natural to supernatural entities:

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

This on combination with our ability to infer agency is what makes a belief in the supernatural complete:

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

And then Shermer gives a plug for a new book, Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable by Bruce Hood. It has been getting fantastic reviews and its on my reading list for this summer:

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009) by University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer’s sweater, believing that “evil” is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers’s cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.

“Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies and entities operating in the world,” Hood explains. “More important, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.”

We are natural-born supernaturalists.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hunting aliens

Here is Seth Shostak on Colbert Report:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage

And here is a link to Seth Shostak's book: Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Seth gave a talk at Umass last year and I had a chance to hang out with him for dinner. He is fantastic and a very smart guy. Do check out his book. Also listen to his weekly poscast, Are we alone?.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Witch hunts in Gambia

Yes, this is the 21st century. But medieval times are not going away soon. We have the Taliban insisting on flogging women in public, beheading people on the slightest of offenses, throwing acid on the faces of students. We have Saudi Arabia, so terrified of women behind the wheels that it still does not allow women to drive - over a hundred years after the invention of the automobile. In a fierce competition to take the country back to the medieval times, we now have Gambia. Apart from other crazy things (the least of which is that its ruler insists on being called, "His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh"), we can now add witch hunts to the list:

The president, it seems, had become concerned about witches in this country of mango trees, tropical scrub, dirt roads, innumerable police checkpoints and Atlantic coastline frequented by sun-seeking European tourists mostly unaware of the activities at nearby Mile 2 State Central Prison, where many opponents of the regime are taken.

To the accompaniment of drums, and directed by men in red tunics bedecked with mirrors and cowrie shells, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gambians were taken from their villages and driven by bus to secret locations. There they were forced to drink a foul-smelling concoction that made them hallucinate, gave them severe stomach pains, induced some to try digging a hole in a tiled floor, made others try climbing up a wall and in some cases killed them, according to the villagers themselves and Amnesty International.

The objective was to root out witches, evil sorcerers who were harming the country, the villagers were told. Terrified, dozens of other people fled into the bush or across the border into Senegal to escape the dragnet, villagers said, leaving whole regions deserted. Amnesty estimates that at least six people died after being forced to drink the potion, whose composition is unknown.
And this atrocious campaign is focused mostly on the elderly and on top of it, there is shame associated with these accusations:
The witchcraft accusation brings shame in a society where belief in sorcery “was pervasive and still is pervasive,” according to Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian-born history professor at Yale University. Beyond that is the trauma of being uprooted and the illnesses that people say linger from the bitter potion. “This stigma will follow us into our grave,” said Dembo Jariatou Bojang, the village development committee chairman in Jambur, a dusty town 15 miles from the capital. “We will never forget this.”
As he spoke, an elderly man sitting on the floor of the village imam’s house shook his head uncontrollably from side to side. The men in the room said the symptom developed after the man, said to be in his 80s, was forced to drink the liquid.
This is so sad and ridiculous. In a connected world, we have to take some blame for allowing these things to happen in this day and age.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Journalistic ethics and outing Raelians

There are ethical questions too. But more firmly, a Quebec court finds that a reporter violated privacy of two Raelians, when she infiltrated the sect and later wrote about them in newspaper articles:

The court awarded $9,000 Cdn ($7,688 US) in damages to two Raelians who said they had suffered embarrassment and loss of revenue after being identified as senior figures close to sect leader Claude Vorilhon, who goes by the name Rael.

The case goes back to 2003 when Brigitte McCann, a reporter for the Journal de Montreal, spent nine months undercover as a member of the Raelians. Her articles won Quebec's top journalism prize and exposed a darker side to the sect, which claims 55,000 followers worldwide who believe in UFOs and that humans have been cloned.

So...should she have infiltrated Raelians? What kind of things were exposed:

McCann reported that Vorilhon believes he has been targeted for assassination by the CIA, demands generous contributions from followers and that his entourage includes "angels" prepared to die to protect him.

Ahmm...ok. This doesn't seem like a threat to its members or others. That leads to the question: why infilterate? Purely for a good story? But then is it okay to report information in a newspaper without the consent of those being reported - especially when the reporter did not disclose her true identity? Well, here is the reasoning from the Quebec court:

Quebec Court Judge Charles Grenier ruled that the newspaper was not justified in infiltrating the Raelians because information about the sect was publicly available. And he suggested that an undercover press investigation of the sect leads to a slippery slope.

"If the activities of a group or organization are legal and of a private nature, what can justify the use of so-called clandestine investigation methods in the name of the public right to information?" Judge Grenier asked. "The non-conformity of ideas and activities? Their bizarreness? Their occult character? General disapproval? And what else?"

The judge found that the publication of the plaintiffs' pictures and personal information infringed their right to privacy. Their identities were not made public.

A woman who is a member of Vorilhon's inner circle of "angels" said her practice as a psychologist suffered after she was publicly identified as a high-ranking Raelian, and was awarded $7,000 in damages.

This got me thinking, where are the public and private boundaries of other mainstream religions. For example, does it make any sense to say that someone infiltrated Catholicism or Islam. Or does this type of infiltration only make sense in small sects and religions? Then, what is "small"?? And more broadly, should one infiltrate (harmless) religious rituals to later report on them in a newspaper or to publish research? I would have to say "no" to the last question.

In any case, read the full article here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Getting closer on solving the origins of life question

When arguing against evolution, many often evoke the unsolved mystery of the origins of life on Earth. Yes, it is a difficult problem, but it is a highly risky move, to say the least, for those looking for a divine miracle to put all their chips on this question. The same happened with the origins of the Earth and the Solar System back in the 18th/19th centuries. For a while this was considered as an unsolvable problem - outside the domain of science. Laplace's "nebular hypothesis" was deemed fanciful with some of the opposition directed specifically at its exclusive reliance on natural mechanisms to explain the origins of the solar system., the formation of the Earth and the solar system is relatively well understood and no one brings up a direct supernatural explanation. God (of the gaps) has now moved to other unexplained places: a) the origin of life, b) the origin of consciousness, and c) the origin of our universe (yes - "ours". If there are other universes, then we'll move God (of the gaps) at the beginning of the multiverse).

Thus, it was fantastic to see this story about a breakthrough in RNA research that may bring us closer to understanding the origin of life:
An English chemist has found the hidden gateway to the RNA world, the chemical milieu from which the first forms of life are thought to have emerged on earth some 3.8 billion years ago. He has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.
RNA has been a long suspect for this line of work:

Scientists have long suspected that the first forms of life carried their biological information not in DNA but in RNA, its close chemical cousin. Though DNA is better known because of its storage of genetic information, RNA performs many of the trickiest operations in living cells. RNA seems to have delegated the chore of data storage to the chemically more stable DNA eons ago. If the first forms of life were based on RNA, then the issue is to explain how the first RNA molecules were formed.

For more than 20 years researchers have been working on this problem. The building blocks of RNA, known as nucleotides, each consist of a chemical base, a sugar molecule called ribose and a phosphate group. Chemists quickly found plausible natural ways for each of these constituents to form from natural chemicals. But there was no natural way for them all to join together. is a palusible way to get them to join naturally:

Instead of making the starting chemicals form a sugar and a base, they mixed them in a different order, in which the chemicals naturally formed a compound that is half-sugar and half-base. When another half-sugar and half-base are added, the RNA nucleotide called ribocytidine phosphate emerges.

A second nucleotide is created if ultraviolet light is shined on the mixture. Dr. Sutherland said he had not yet found natural ways to generate the other two types of nucleotides found in RNA molecules, but synthesis of the first two was thought to be harder to achieve.

If all four nucleotides formed naturally, they would zip together easily to form an RNA molecule with a backbone of alternating sugar and phosphate groups. The bases attached to the sugar constitute a four-letter alphabet in which biological information can be represented.
Neat! Oh...and a 19th century bearded-dude may have been right about this one too:

If Dr. Sutherland’s proposal is correct it will set conditions that should help solve the many other problems in reconstructing the origin of life. Darwin, in a famous letter of 1871 to the botanist Joseph Hooker, surmised that life began in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts.” But the warm little pond has given way in recent years to the belief that life began in some exotic environment like the fissures of a volcano or in the deep sea vents that line the ocean floor.

Dr. Sutherland’s report supports Darwin. His proposed chemical reaction take place at moderate temperatures, though one goes best at 60 degrees Celsius. “It’s consistent with a warm pond evaporating as the sun comes out,” he said. His scenario would rule out deep sea vents as the place where life originated because it requires ultraviolet light.
Very cool stuff. Read the full article here. Also see Carl Zimmer's excellent explanation here: In the prebiotic kitchen. While we are on the subject, also check out this conversation between Paul Davies and Richard Dawkins as part of the Origins symposium. Much of it is focused on biology and origins of life issues and Paul asked some excellent questions. My favorite is towards the end, when he asks if its possible that Lamarckian evolution (instead of Darwinian evolution) may be dominant on another planet. Richard's answer was no. But I think it would be very cool to imagine the resultant diversity and how it would differ from here on Earth. A perfect premise for a sci-fi novel. Here is the video of the talk:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Taliborg!

I'm not proficient in Photoshop, otherwise I would have placed a turban on the Borg ship. But here is an article from Dawn that compares Taliban to the Borg:

Watching a re-run featuring the fearsome Borg, I was struck by how similar they are to the Taliban. Anonymous and terrifying, these bearded holy warriors could easily be an army of clones. Motivated only by ideas put in their unformed minds by the Taliban collective, they kill all who differ with them. Those who fall into line then become foot soldiers. Other recruits to the Taliban cause are drawn from the thousands of madressahs that have proliferated across Pakistan. Here, young men are brainwashed into hating all ideas and influences not sanctioned by their narrow belief system.

Just like the Borg, the Taliban are an implacable foe in their unreasoning drive to assimilate or annihilate all in their path. So certain are they of their monopoly on the one truth that they are not willing to contemplate the possibility of different approaches, different beliefs. And just like the Borg, it is impossible to reason or negotiate with the Taliban. It’s all or nothing for these stone-age warriors.

However, those manipulating them are far more cunning. People like Osama Bin Laden and Baitullah Mehsud are using the dirt-poor, ignorant Taliban as pawns in their attempt to seize power in large parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In their dream of world conquest, a secure base in the rugged tribal areas would give them the opportunity to raise and train an army to take on the world.

and, of course, negotiations are futile:

As mankind explores the stars, and seeks to leave the confines of earth’s gravity, it is hard to believe that we are still locked in an existential battle against a foe that wants to drag us back to the seventh century. For the Taliban, there are no half-measures. As we saw in Swat, they are not content with simply running a territory ceded to them by a weak state. Having grabbed one piece of land, they sense weakness, and want it all.

The Borg, too, spurn offers to negotiate as a sign of feebleness. For them, the only options open to another race is to accept ‘assimilation’ or face destruction. And these are the choices the jihadis are offering. Whatever the likes of Maulana Sufi Mohammad might say, any deals we make with the Taliban have invariably been broken by them, just as the Swat deal was. In the extremist handbook, the adversary only offers to talk when he is weak, so that’s when you go for the jugular.

Ok - so its a bit over the top, but it conveys the ruthless mindset of the Taliban. Of course, Cylons in the new (recently concluded) Battlestar Galactica (BSG) provides another close comparison. The cylons are motivated by God and are hellbent on destroying the human race - and have already used a WMD once. There are sleeping cells of cylons - but there is no effort to assimilate. They just want to destroy humans. Thus, the cylons are the Al-Qaeda (as seen from the West). This is not so surprising as the new BSG was written with post 9-11 world in mind. On the other hand, the Borg model works well from the Pakistan perspective. The Taliban are trying to assimilate the population at all costs.

In any case, read the full article here.

On a related topic, I have brought up before the issue of the effectiveness of drone attacks in Pakistan and the ethics of such a warfare. Now there is an excellent oped piece in today's NYT that comes out strongly against the use of drones in Pakistan. Here are the three key reasons they cite:

First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. This is similar to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006, when similar strikes were employed against the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts. While the strikes did kill individual militants who were the targets, public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists. The Islamists’ popularity rose and the group became more extreme, leading eventually to a messy Ethiopian military intervention, the rise of a new regional insurgency and an increase in offshore piracy.

While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants. Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly “precision.”

This is an excellent point and it automatically leads to the anti-Americanism all over Pakistan:

Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place — areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

But it is their third point that is essential to think about. What is the overall strategy behind the drone attacks?

Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.

To be sure, simply ending the drone strikes is no more a strategy than continuing them. Stabilizing Pakistan will require a focus on securing areas, principally in Punjab and Sindh, that are still under government control, while building up police and civil authorities and refocusing aid on economic development, security and governance. Suspending drone strikes won’t fix Pakistan’s problems — but continuing them makes these problems much harder to address.
The rest of the article is also very good. Read the full article here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Inanity square: Denyse O'Leary on Harun Yahya

I have written about Turkish creationist Harun Yahya (real name, Adnan Oktar) before (for example, see here, here, here, and here). But this post is not really about Harun Yahya. Instead, this is about the caliber of Canadian journalist and Intelligent Design (ID) advocate, Denyse O'Leary. Now we have seen the atrocious quality of Yahya's books - especially see this post about his Atlas of Creation - but it seems that O'Leary has become his fan. This has prompted The Panda's Thumb to charge that "Denyse O'Leary has finally scrapped the bottom of the barrel". They are wrong! While I agree with their overall placement of O'Leary toward the bottom of the barrel of O'Leary (and by implication, Yahya), I disagree on the scrapping part. That honor still belongs to the folks at the Creation Museum (See Muslim creationists not the bottom of the barrel). However, I must say that the competition for the bottom of the barrel is getting quite tough. I think O'Leary certainly has the potential to seize this honor from the Answers in Genesis group. When she gets to that point, I will fully support her bid.

What does Denyse O'Leary has to say about Yahya? Well, here she is at Uncommon Descent:
I became interested years ago when a Turkish friend kindly sent me a number of the books produced by Adnan Oktar and his associates, under the pen name Harun Yahya. I finally got a chance to correspond with him. Here are his responses to my questions. (I will also shortly post a review of Evolution Deceit, the most succinct and comprehensive of the critiques of overblown claims for Darwinian evolution that I have ever read.)
Hmm...can't wait to read her review. This is just like an astrologer reviewing the scientific validity of a psychic. For the interview itself, there is nothing really new. However, given Harun Yahya's strong anti-ID stance, I was curious to see his response on that matter. So ready? Here is the question and his response:

O’LEARY: How do you see the intelligent design controversy playing out in Turkish culture today?

ADNAN OKTAR: The number of people in Turkey who believe in Darwinism has fallen almost to nothing over the last 30 years. Turkey is the country with the lowest level of belief in Darwinism in the world, because the Turkish people are highly intelligent and foresighted.

There has been a huge intellectual struggle going on in Turkey for the last 30 years, millions of works have become accessible to everyone, more than 2000 conferences have been held and, most important of all, people have seen fossils at exhibitions with their own eyes. They have personally witnessed how there is no difference between life forms dating back 100 or 200 million years and life forms of today. There is no need to say anything more.

If a life form has remained unchanged for tens of millions of years, if it possesses the same characteristics today as it did 200 million years ago, then it is impossible to speak of evolution. That is why people in Turkey are fully aware. Nobody can easily deceive the Turkish public with Darwinist lies any more.

If you are thinking, what does this answer has to do with the question, don't worry, you are not alone. This really is a non-answer. Let me bring you up to date with Yahya's actual views about ID (also see this post at Darwinian Conservatism). Here are some excerpts from his website article, The "Intelligent Design" Distraction:

To put forward any claim of "intelligent design," while ignoring the existence of Allah (He is surely beyond that) is exceedingly irrational and illogical.

After a moment's reflection, anyone of normal intelligence and possessed of a conscience will understand that if the perfection in the universe appears to have been designed, then the Creator of that perfection can be none other than Allah.

He will see that all entities in the universe, living or otherwise, are manifestations of Allah's infinite wisdom, knowledge, might, and creative artistry.

In consequence, he will say, "Allah exists; Allah created" rather than "There is intelligent design," or "There exists an intelligent power."

As we know, the pagans in pre-Islamic Mecca attached the names of Allah to statues they carved out of stone and wood and took these as their idols.

They maintained that these idols--to which they attached such names as al-Lat, Manat and al-'Uzza--had created them, had provided for them and had power to protect them. In short, they ascribed partners to Allah by ascribing His attributes to them.

Today, similarly, some people are trying to turn others away from a belief in Allah by imposing His superior attributes onto such abstract concepts as "intelligent design" and "intelligent power." This is virtually the same as adopting an idol by the name of Intelligent Design.

and, of course, one cannot leave the freemasons out of this (for your amusement, one of Yahya's friends also inquired about my connections to the freemasons):

Freemasons, using the same logic, maintain in their writings that a "total power" or "a consciousness" directs the universe, but what they are referring to is definitely not Allah (Allah forbid).

Obviously, the "intelligent design" adherents are employing exactly the same logic as that to be found in Masonic accounts.

Wait a minute. I always knew Bill Dembski was hiding something. OMG! He is a freemason. This explains so much about him. Oh, hold on. Yahya has more to say who is really behind "Intelligent Design":

"Intelligent Design" Is Another of Satan's Distractions

In rejecting one false claim such as evolution, one must be very careful not to fall prey to another of Satan's snares. One of Satan's main objectives is to prevent the recognition of Allah by any means possible, and to cause people to ignore His remembrance.

There are those whom Satan has not been able to deceive with the concept of evolution. But if he can divert them in another direction, such as that of "intelligent design" he will again have achieved his end, in turning people away from remembering Allah.

How Satan manages to appear in the name of truth and causes people to deviate by obstructing truth is revealed in the Qur'an:

He [Satan] said: "By Your misguidance of me, I will lie in ambush for them on your straight path. Then I will come at them, from in front of them and behind them, from their right and from their left. You will not find most of them thankful." (Qur'an, 7:16-17)

It should be known that overturning the theory of evolution and revealing the "chance" mindset as invalid both demonstrate the existence of Allah, by Whom everything was created, and not of "intelligent design."

To say, "If there is no evolution, then there is intelligent design" is nothing less than adopting yet another false idol to replace the one of evolution.

Wait a minute. Now I'm confused. Is Bill Dembski a freamason or Satan? Or both?? This is an important question, and I think we should not take this lightly. I think we need a journalist to resolve this properly. Someone please call Denyse O'Leary. I've heard she is very good in sorting out issues that have little connection to the real world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Off-Topic: Go see Leonard Cohen Live

I had a chance to see Leonard Cohen last night in Waterbury, Connecticut. I love his poetry and music, but considering that he is in his 70's, I went into the concert with relatively low expectations. Plus, my seat was waaaay at the top - Yes, (relatively) cheap seats, but then I could almost see the shuttle astronauts working on the Hubble Space Telescope. However, it turned out to be an amazing experience. The concert was very well produced and he played for over 2 and a half hours. His voice is as good as ever and the concert was full of energy. However, the most delightful part was to see his mannerisms (he would dance his way on and off the stage) and the way he introduced and thanked not only his band members (by aptly listening to their solos, and then bowing his head to them in respect), but also those responsible for lighting, instrument tunings, and stage management (he brought all of them on stage and individually thanked them by names). Very classy. I don't know how he did it, but at the end it felt like Leonard Cohen gave me a small, informal, and private concert. If you get a chance, check him out live.

For a flavor, here are couple of snippets from his concert in London late last year and he performed all these yesterday:
First a promo (with The Future):

here is Suzanne:

and his wonderful poem, A Thousand Kisses Deep. In fact, it was incredible to see him captivate couple of thousand people in a concert hall with the recitation of a poem. Here is the audio from London: is a Fresh Air interview with Leonard Cohen, where he talks about his (fantastic) Book of Longing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Name worshiping and the mathematics of infinity

The book itself may not be that accessible, but the subject sounds fascinating. Here is the review of Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity by Loren Graham & Jean-Michel Kantor. Their main claim is that a peculiar esoteric Christian sect may have helped advance ideas of set-theory in Russia in the first decades of the 20th century.
Graham and Kantor begin in 1913, when the Imperial Russian Navy stormed a monastery on a Greek peninsula where a sect of Russian Orthodox monks had fled to pursue a mystical practice known as name worshipping. Holding the heretical view that God comes into existence when named, these monks believed that repeating the name of Jesus while controlling their breath and heartbeat would bring them closer to the infinite. Their persecution at the hands of the Tsar in the ensuing years aroused the sympathy of a number of Russian intellectuals. Among them was a handful of mathematicians in Moscow who, working in the young field of set theory, also found themselves dealing with the infinite.
By the way, the sect reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's short story, The Nine Billion Names of God (it's short - so read it if you are unfamiliar with it). Of course, Clarke's story itself is based on existing mystical ideas, but I don't know if it was inspired by this particular Russian sect. In any case, the issue at hand is the development of set theory and whether this religious movement had any influence in its development:

The situation was different in Moscow, where the Russian mathematicians took up the same problems with zeal and eventually resolved them, advancing the far-reaching field of measure theory and launching descriptive set theory. Graham and Kantor argue that the spiritual views of these mathematicians were crucial to their scholarly work. That there were ties between some of the mathematicians and the heretical sect is not in doubt. The geometer Dmitri Egorov believed in name worshipping. His student Pavel Florensky, a mathematician turned theologian, held that the 'set of all sets' might be God himself. The eminent mathematician Nikolai Luzin was privately sympathetic to the sect.

None of this illuminates a substantive connection between the ideas of the monks and the mathematicians. These Russian scholars did push forward where the French would not, so it is reasonable to ask whether their religion gave them an edge: did their belief that both God and sets could be named into existence help them deal more creatively with the infinite? The authors do not settle this question, and never fully explain why the work of the Russians should have required a belief in name worshipping as opposed to another spiritual belief. In the end, they backpedal to say they are "not claiming a unique or necessary relationship" between mysticism and mathematics but are merely saying that the heresy of name worshipping "played a role in their conceptions". They don't, however, say what that role was.

Even if the role was limited, it is still a fascinating story of these mystically-inclined mathematicians. Pythagoras would be proud of them. Now the second part of the story is tragic but it provides another glimpse of Stalin's oppression:

Whatever their ties, the mathematicians and the heretics suffered similar fates under the Soviet regime. For a time both escaped the worst treatment. The name-worshippers hid in the shadows as Vladimir Lenin went after the mainstream Orthodox church. Mathematicians survived longer than other academics because, unlike physicists or chemists, they did not need special equipment, and unlike historians or philosophers, their findings did not immediately fall foul of Soviet dogma.

Eventually the Stalinist state caught up with everyone. Egorov was detained in 1930 for "mixing mathematics and religion" and died in prison. Florensky confessed under torture and was sent to the Gulag, where he studied permafrost and seaweed before his execution in 1937. The case of Luzin is a miraculous exception. In 1936 he was accused of collaborating with foreigners by the Marxist mathematician Ernst Kolman, who proclaimed, "Soviet science will rip away your mask!" He was saved by a letter to Joseph Stalin from the physicist Peter Kapista, who argued that Luzin might yet be useful to the government. It is not clear why Stalin listened, but his whim ensured the future of a discipline.

What a bizarre way to kill science and inquiry. I had read about the whole Lysenko Affair and how it affected Soviet biology, but I didn't know about the persecution of mathematicians. By the way, the brilliance and strangeness of Russian mathematics has still not diminished, as can be seen from the case of Grigori Perelman. He solved the problem of Poincare' conjecture (don't ask me any details), a feat declared Breakthrough of the year by Science in 2006, but then he declined to accept the top award in mathematics - the Fields medal. Somehow this all fits well into the idiosyncratic nature of Russian mathematics.

In any case, read the full review here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Poisoning of students and a map of conflict

Its not clear if Taliban in Afghanistan are responsible, but 90 schoolgirls have fallen ill due to poisoning:

The girls experienced headaches, vomiting and dizziness after strong fumes engulfed the school in Kapisa province, north of Kabul. The incident is the third of its kind at an Afghan girls' school recently. Strong fumes were reported on Monday and on 26 April at schools in the nearby town of Charikar. The police say none of the girls is in danger. Blood samples have been sent to the American airbase at Bagram. As yet, officials say there is no clue as to what the fumes may have been, or where they came from.

There has been an increase in reported attacks on schoolgirls in Afghanistan in the past year. These have mainly been in areas of the east and south of the country, where the Taleban insurgency has been gaining strength.

I think a century or two from now, people will find the Taliban movement a true surreal experience of the 21st century. Bombing schools. Possibly poisoning school girls. Definitely throwing acid on the faces of school girls. They are making every effort to out-compete brutalities associated with the medieval times - and they seem to be succeeding in it.

On the Pakistan front, BBC has produced a map of conflict, that shows that Pakistan government is in control of only 38% of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, the map is currently in flux because of a major operation to dislodge militants from Swat - and this time Army appears to be more determined - and there is a rare public support (from the urban population) behind it. We'll see. But a military victory here seems to be more important for Pakistan at this point than the Taliban. A standstill will favor the Taliban as that will show that they can withstand a major offensive inside the settled areas of Pakistan.

In any case, here is the methodology for the map and below is the map:

One note of caution: There are different flavors of Taliban (at least three major factions) inside Pakistan. So to a degree, this map (and my post) simplifies that aspect. But we should be mindful of that.

The researchers analysed reports from BBC Urdu correspondents over the past 18 months, backed up by conversations with local officials, police officers and journalists.

They concluded that in 24% of the region, the civilian government no longer had authority and Taleban commanders had taken over administrative controls. Either the Taleban were in complete control or the military were engaged in operations to flush them out.

Another 38% of the region was deemed to have a permanent Taleban presence, meaning militants had established rural bases which were restricting local government activities and seriously compromising local administration.

Read the full story here.

Update (5/14): I had an earlier post about a diary that a 7th grade schoolgirl in Swat is writing for the BBC. Well..she has left Swat because of the recent fighting. Here is her latest entry.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Emma and the tone of "Origin of Species"

This looks like an excellent book for children about Darwin: Charles and Emma - The Darwin's Leap of faith by Deborah Heiligman. The bit about science & religion is later - but first I wanted to highlight Darwin's mundane activities from a review of this book:
One of the pleasures of “Charles and Emma” comes in watching Darwin, giant of science, grapple with the mundane challenges of marriage and day-to-day life. One day he’s discovering a key to the evolution of species in the beak of a finch, the next he’s buying a house and removing a dead dog from the backyard. When Charles mentions that he and a friend might wish to dine every evening at London’s Athenaeum Club, his fiancée lets him know that if he plans to hit the clubs with his “excellent steady old friends” every night, he’s got another think coming.
And now we get to the science & religion bit. The review mentions Darwin's famous list of "marry" or "not marry" for which he ends "marry-marry-marry Q.E.D" (see the original list here). But the issue of religion also lingered on for his marriage:
Even before he wooed and wed the charming Emma Wedgwood, Darwin suspected that his growing religious doubts, fed by scientific discoveries that seemed to disprove the biblical creation story, might dash his chances for matrimonial harmony. “He knew that these doubts and his revolutionary thoughts about transmutation” — what we know as evolution — “and the creation of species would stand in his way of finding a wife,” Heiligman writes. “Most women were believers and wanted their husbands to be believers, too.”

The issue was especially close to the heart of his intended fiancée. Emma’s beloved sister Fanny had died young, and Emma believed that leading a good Christian life would allow her to reunite with Fanny in heaven. The idea of being parted from her husband — for he, as a nonbeliever, would be heading south after death — might be too much for her to bear.

Darwin went to his father for advice. “Conceal your doubts!” Dad said.

The son, as sons are wont to do, heard Dad’s advice and promptly did the opposite. In a fireside chat, he revealed all. Emma, the sharp-minded daughter of progressive, free-thinking parents, didn’t see it as a deal breaker. She wouldn’t insist on word-for-word biblical belief, she told Charles, just an openness to the love of Jesus. That, he could live with. Thus began an extraordinary marriage, one bound together by love, respect and a shared lifelong struggle with the question of God.
But here is an interesting point that is also relevant to science & religion debates today:
In today’s climate of division between religion and science, it’s instructive to read about a marriage in which the two cultures improved each for exposure to the other. Heiligman’s most revealing insight comes near the end of the book, as Darwin, having developed his ideas in private for 20-some years, spends a feverish 13 months writing them up in “The Origin of Species.” Without Emma, he might well have written a combative, antireligious treatise — “The God Delusion” of his day. Instead, his experience with his wife’s tolerant, reasonable brand of faith led him to temper his tone.
I think the last point is crucial. We can also see today a more nuanced approach towards religion by writers who either were themselves religious or have close associations with those who believe. Of course, there are many many exceptions. But in general, unlike the more militant atheists, they see complexity in the reasons why people believe and are more effective in engaging with believers (I'm assuming here that conversations, in general, are more fruitful than shouting at each other). This is the reason why scientists like E.O.Wilson (Evangelical relatives) can communicate and engage with the Evangelicals in the US for the common goal against global warming. It would have been difficult if he considered, and called, all Evangelicals idiots. Remember, this doesn't mean that individual arguments cannot be attacked (such as a belief in a 10,000 year old earth or special creation). But problem comes in when opinions about individual arguments are extended and applied to all those who believe.

We have a lot to learn from Charles.

The book is for kids - but it looks great. Read the full review here.