Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Popular Science as a Guide for Popular Geopolitics?

by Salman Hameed

Pakistan and Osama bin Laden are still all over the news. Related to that, I have a post at the USC Trans/Missions blog on Media, Culture, Religion, and Society. I'm well aware of the differences between science (more objective and where one-side can decisively be right or wrong) and politics (mostly being viewed through a particular partisan lens), but I think the coverage of politics can still be rooted more in uncovering relevant facts before presenting conclusions regarding foreign policy issues. In fact, popular science journalism can potentially serve as a good model for covering geopolitical events. Here is the post:

Popular Science as a Guide for Popular Geopolitics?

One of the motivations behind the efforts to popularize science is the idea that we live in a democracy, and a scientifically informed citizenry is necessary (or is at least strongly preferred) for living in the modern world. Issues such as cloning, genetically modified (GM) foods, end-of-life decisions, and climate change, are only some of the arenas where public opinion can alter the direction of science in the country. People may still reject evolution or deny global warming, but we expect science-writers to convey established ideas so, at least, there is good science out there.

I was thinking about this while watching the coverage of 
the death of Osama Bin Laden. There were obvious questions about the possible complicity of Pakistan's Intelligence agency, ISI, and if Pakistan government knew about it. There was coverage of celebrations in the US of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and then questions about whether these celebrations over a killing are a good idea or not. Some even raised the issue with the short-circuiting of justice by killing an unarmed Osama instead of prosecuting him in a US court.

These are all valid and important questions, but the topic that got my attention was about whether US should now pull out of Afghanistan. This is a complicated question with huge geo-political significance. Russia, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan are all keeping an eye on US actions in their neck of the woods. While some 
wonkish foreign policy magazines addressed the implications of US actions on the world stage, many of the mainstream news programs looked at it primarily through the narrow lens of US domestic politics and its relation to the 'war on terror'.

This triggered the question: If scientists demand good science coverage that includes not only accuracy, but also a distillation of complex ideas into layman terms, shouldn't we expect the same for global politics? But then, can we even sort out facts (in a relative sense) in geo-political ideas, especially when the reaction time is much quicker than in the sciences? I don't know, but I think we can present a broader geo-political perspective.

Let me use the example of Pakistan since this is the country under a microscope right now, and I also happen to be somewhat familiar with it.

There was obviously much talk of Pakistan in the post Osama news coverage. The primary focus was on whether Pakistan is doing enough on the 'war on terror' or if 
it has been playing a double-game with the US, in the mean time, getting billions of dollars in aid packages. These are important questions, but Pakistan's own geopolitical interests in the region were rarely mentioned. This approach is not exactly new. For example, this Washington Post editorial from 2008, titled Pakistan's Double-Game, follows roughly the same template and again does not make any mention of Pakistan's geopolitical interests.

In reality, however, it is impossible to talk about Pakistan's relation to the Taliban without mentioning the fact that the current Afghan government – which the Taliban oppose - is allied with India, Pakistan's archrival. The hedging of Pakistani bets in this context can rationally be seen as preparing for a post-US Afghanistan. Similarly, the roots of current mistrust between Pakistan and the US stretch back to 1990, rather than the post 9/11 world. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the US not only abandoned the region, but it also imposed economic sanctions on its former ally, Pakistan. US is thus seen through this lens in much of Pakistan, and it is widely believed there that US will do the same after it withdraws from Afghanistan.

This is a complex story in a complicated geo-political landscape. How much of this information is necessary for American viewers? I don't know, but a broader perspective can only help when lives are at stake, both American and non-American. If this were a story about science, we would have insisted on breaking down complex ideas into layman language. We routinely get Neil de Grasse Tyson on television to talk about new planetary systems as well as physics behind black holes. But I would think that the stakes are even higher for political matters. In a democracy in an increasingly globalized world, an incomplete and/or an overly simplistic picture can be a serious problem when it comes down to establishing public support or opposition to US military involvement overseas. 

Paging Carl Sagan of Foreign Affairs.

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