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Corroding Our Democracy: Canada Silences Scientists, Targets Environmentalists in Tar Sands Push September 24, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Canada petroleum, Energy, Environment, Science and Technology.
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http://www.democracynow.org, 24 September 2013

Five years ago this month, the firm TransCanada submitted a permit request to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has sparked one of the nation’s most contentious environmental battles in decades. The Obama administration initially appeared ready to approve Keystone XL, but an unprecedented wave of activism from environmentalists and residents of the states along its path has forced several delays. Among those pressuring Obama for Keystone XL’s approval is the Canadian government, which recently offered a greater pledge of reduced carbon emissions if the pipeline is built. We’re joined by one of Canada’s leading environmental activists, Tzeporah Berman, who has campaigned for two decades around clean energy, and is the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit. She is now focused on stopping tar sands extraction as a member of the steering committee for the Tar Sands Solutions Network. Berman is also the co-founder of ForestEthics and is the author of the book “This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge.” Berman discusses how the Canadian government is muzzling scientists speaking out on global warming, quickly changing environmental laws, and why she believes the push for tar sands extraction has created a “perfect storm” of grassroots activism bring together environmentalists, indigenous communities and rural landowners.

GUEST:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this month, the firm TransCanada submitted a permit request to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring tar Sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has sparked one of the nation’s most contentious environmental battles in decades. The Obama administration initially appeared ready to approve Keystone XL, but an unprecedented wave of activism from environmentalists and residents of the states along its path has forced several delays. In the summer 2011, 1200 people were arrested outside the White House. Well, on Saturday, protests were held once again around the country in a national day of action urging President Obama to reject Keystone’s construction. President Obama also faces continued pressure from backers of the Keystone XL. In their latest push for the project, House Republicans have announced plans to tie the pipeline’s construction to the upcoming vote on raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Well, on Monday, delegates at the 2013 International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit held in Sufferin, New York called on Obama to reject the Keystone XL, saying, “There is no single project in North America that is more significant than Keystone XL in terms of the carbon emissions it would unleash… As women who are already seeing the tragic impacts of climate change on families on indigenous peoples, and on entire countries, we urge you to choose a better future by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.” At the conference, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, described the impact that massive oil and gas extraction has had on her family and its traditional land in northern Alberta.

MELINA LABOUCAN-MASSIMO: I come from a small northern community, it’s Cree, Nēhiyaw, is, in our language, what we call it. There is nothing on — that compares with the destruction going on there. If there were a global prize for unsustainable development, the tar sands would be a clear winner. Not that there’s a competition going on or by any means, but, I just think that world-renowned people, experts are really seeing this as one of the major issues and that is why it is one of the biggest — you know, the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and why Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol.

So, this is what it looks like. very viscous. It’s, you know, not fluid, so it takes a lot more energy a lot more water, produces a lot more byproduct. So, it’s equaling to — why it is such a big area, it’s 141,000 square kilometers — equal to that of destroying, you know, England and Wales combined, or the state of Florida for American folks. The mines that we’re dealing with are bigger than entire cities. So, there’s about six, seven right now, could be up to nine. And this is — Imperial Oil, for example, will be bigger than Washington, D.C. alone. So, that’s just a mine. And this is some of the biggest dump trucks in the world. A lot of the issues of toxicity we’re talking from the air, so these are some of the biggest dump trucks in the world. And a lot of the issues for toxicity that we’re dealing with is, and which relates to the water, are these huge tailing ponds; they’re called ponds, but they’re actually big toxic sludge lakes. They currently spend 180 square kilometers just of toxic sludge that’s sitting on the landscape. So, every day one million leaders are leaching into the Athabasca Watershed, which is, you know, where our families drink from. I’m from the Peace Region, but it connects to the Athabasca and it goes up into the Arctic Basin, so that is where all the Northern folks will be getting these toxins, and these contain cyanide, mercury, lead, polyaromatic hydrocarbin nythetic acids. So, there are a lot of issues that we’re dealing with healthwise.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Melina Laboucan-Massimo, member of the lLubicon Cree First Nation in northern Alberta. All of this comes as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently sent President Obama letter, offering a greater pledge of reduced carbon emissions of the Keystone Pipeline is built to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the United States. Well, for more I’m joined by one of Canada’s leading environmental activists, Tzeporah Berman. She’s campaigned for decades around clean energy and is the former Co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate [Unit]. She is now focused on stopping tar sands extraction as a member of the steering committee for the Tar Sands Solutions Network. Tzeporah Berman is also the Co-founder of Forest Ethics and the author of the book, “This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge.” Welcome to Democracy Now! it’s great to have you with us Tzeporah.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what tar sands means for you in Canada and how it has affected your whole country.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: The tar sands are the single largest industrial project on earth. The scale is almost incomprehensible, if you’ve never been there. They are not only the single reason that Canada’s climate pollution is going up, that we will not meet even the weak targets, even the weak targets, that have been set, but they’re also the most toxic project in the country; they’re polluting our water and air. The tar sands produces 300 million liters of toxic sludge a day that is just pumped into open pit lakes that now stretch about 170 kilometers across Canada. And, you know, one of the important things about what is happening in Canada right now is that Canadian policy on climate change, on environment, on many issues is being held hostage to the goal that this federal government, the Harper government and the oil industry have, of expanding the tar sands no matter what the cost. Oil corrodes, it is corroding our pipelines and leading to spills and leaks that are threatening our communities, but it is also corroding our democracy. What we’re seeing in Canada is, the, literally, the elimination of 40 years of environmental laws in the last two years in order to make way for quick expansion of tar sands and pipelines. I mean, the Keystone is not the only pipeline this industry is proposing. It is a spider of pipelines across North America so that they can try and expand this dirty oil as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is it so dirty?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: It’s really dirty because it’s — the oil is mixed with sand. So, in order to get that oil out, they have to use natural gas. More natural gas is used in the tar sands than all homes in Canada. It’s — so, they use natural gas and freshwater to actually remove the oil from the sand, and the result is that each barrel of oil from the tar sands has three to four times more emissions, more climate pollution than conventional oil.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how this pipeline would traverse Canada and the United States and where it goes, what it is for. Does the U.S. benefit from the oil going through the pipeline?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: No, this is an export pipeline. What the industry wants is, they want to get this oil off the continent because they’ll get a better price. And so, all of the pipelines that are currently being proposed are in order so that the industry can export the oil. So, the Keystone, for example, will go all the way from Alberta straight down through the United States and out to the Gulf, and it’s not for U.S. consumption. The majority of that oil is destined to — the U.S. is really just in the Canadian oil industry’s way. The result is that this is a pipeline that is — presents enormous risk to the American people as a result of the terrible records of oil spills and leaks. And not a lot of benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah, you have been meeting with a number of scientists. This week in the New York Times had an interesting editorial called, “Silencing Scientists” and it said “Over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists.” What is going on?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: First of all, the government has shut down the majority of scientific research in the country that had to deal with climate change. This is a government in denial and they do not want to talk about climate change. So, last year they shut down the atmospheric research station, which was one of the most important places in the world to get climate data. They shut down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy, they fired hundreds of scientists, and the ones that are left are being told that they can’t release the research to us, even though it is a tax payer’s funded research. They’re also being told they can’t speak to the press unless they have a handler and it’s an approved interview; they have to have a handler from the prime minister’s office. So, the scientists that I’ve talked to, they’re embarrassed, they’re frustrated, they’re protesting. Last week in Canada we had hundreds of scientists hit the streets in their lab coats protesting the federal government because they can’t speak. They are being muzzled. To the extent that the, quiet eminent, journal Nature, last year, published an editorial saying it is time for Canada to set its scientists free.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is an amazing story. We know that in the United States, under the Bush Administration, you had James Hansen who was Head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA who had a handler who hadn’t graduated from college, he was — I think his credential was that he been active on the Bush campaign committee, re-election campaign committee, and James Hansen had to go through him to deal with the media.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Right, well — but, and James Hansen’s still got to speak deal with — to speak to the media. Most of the scientists that I’m talking to in Canada can’t speak to the media at all. And if they want to talk about climate change, they’re definitely not going to get those interviews approved. But, it is not just the scientists that are being muzzled and the climate research that’s being shut down and people that are being fired, we have also seen an unprecedented attack on charitable organizations that deal with environmental research. The Canadian Government has the majority of environmental organizations under Canadian revenue audit, and so, the result is you have the majority of the country’s environmental leaders not able to be a watchdog on what the government is doing. And secret documents revealed through freedom of information this year showed that the government eliminated all these environmental laws in Canada at the request of the oil industry because the environmental laws were in their way. The Embridge Northern Gateway Pipeline crosses 1000 streams and that would normally trigger in of environmental assessment process. Well, when you have no laws, you have no environmental assessment, so when they eradicated all the environmental laws 3000 environmental assessments for major industrial projects in Canada were canceled. Now those projects are just approved without environmental assessment.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean, the activism for you and Canada in the United States, when clearly President Obama has been forced to delay the decision, the Keystone XL because of the massive protest against it?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: I think that what we’re seeing, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, is an unprecedented climate movement. I think that, you know, these pipelines have provided a tangible focus for communities on the ground, and the oil industry and the government have, in a sense, created their own perfect storm. Because, while before it might have been people who were concerned about climate change that would get involved in tar sands or pipeline issues, now it is people worried about their groundwater, it’s first nations and indigenous people across North America who are protesting their rights. It’s land owners. So, now you have this perfect storm.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the legendary Canadian musician, Neil Young, spoke out against the extraction of tar sands oil in Canada and its export to the U.S. through the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. He was speaking to a National Farmers Union rally and Washington, D.C. Neil Young described his recent visit to a tar sands community in Alberta, Canada.

NEIL YOUNG: The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the Native peoples are dying. The fuel’s all over, there’s fumes everywhere. You can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town, and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the legendary musician Neil Young. I don’t know how many people here in the U.S. know that he is Canadian, but, he is. The significance of him coming, and also what did the climatologist, the scientist, James Hansen, call the tar sands?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Dr. Hansen has referred to the Keystone XL Pipeline as the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet. And he says that his studies are showing that if we allow the tar sands to expand at the rates that the government and industry want it to expand, then it’s game over for the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah Berman, I saw you at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit in Sufferin and you talked about your son having to respond to a question of his. We only have a minute, but explain.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: One night at dinner my son, who was eight at the time, turned to me and said, mommy, why does the government think you are a terrorist? Which is not really the conversation you want to have with your son. Because he had heard on the radio, that on the Senate floor, the Harper government was proposing that we change the definition of the term “domestic terrorism” in Canada to include environmentalism.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does that mean for you and what does that mean for environmental activists? Where are you headed now? What are you going to do around tar sands?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Canadians who care about these issues are under attack by our own government, and we are being told that if we — that what we do is not in the national interest unless we support the oil industry’s agenda. But, I think this government has overreached and we are now finding — our phones are ringing off the hook. People are joining the campaign and stepping up. And let’s be clear, Canadians want clean energy. Canadians, many of them, are very embarrassed about what our government is doing internationally, so our movement is growing, and so far, we have slowed down all of these pipelines and the expansion.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the alternative?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Well, the alternative for Canada is not only clean energy, renewable energy, which now we can build at scale, we know that, but it’s also supporting other aspects of our economy, because when you support only one aspect of your economy, the most capital-intensive sector in the country, then it starts to destroy your manufacturing base, your service industry, your tourism industry. We need a diversified economy in Canada, and that’s not — and that’s entirely possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah Berman, I want to thank you for being with us; leading environmental activist in Canada. She’s campaigned for decades around clean energy; former Co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit, now focused on stopping tar sands extraction.

Rallies Across Canada Ask Canadians to ‘Stand Up for Science’ September 15, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: I loved it when I read that at one of the rallies of scientists you would hear this chant: “What do we want? / Peer review! /  When do we want it? /  Now!”

 

 

New advocacy group fighting for the survival of public science

 

by Natascia Lypny

The future of science in Canada is grim, warns a new advocacy group fighting for its survival.

Last July’s Death of Evidence rally at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. On Monday September 16 there will be a nation-wide follow-up on this protest against the Harper government’s cutbacks in science and its efforts to muzzle scientists. Scientists and politicians will speak at the Dalhousie Student Union Building at 1 pm. (Photo: Richard Webster)

Evidence for Democracy, a national non-partisan group comprised largely of scientists, journalists and concerned citizens, is asking the federal government to reverse what it sees as disconcerting trends in how science has been treated in Canada since the Conservative Party took power in 2006.

On Monday, it will host Stand Up for Science events across Canada — including Halifax — to bring attention to the deterioration of federally funded research, the dearth of evidence-based policy decision-making, and broken communication between scientists and the public.

“This isn’t just about scientists and our careers, but really what we’re trying to get across is the fact that science really does matter to all Canadians, that we all have a vested interest in keeping science healthy in Canada,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy.

A recent PhD recipient from the University of Ottawa’s biology department, Gibbs helped organize last July’s Death of Evidence rally at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The mock funeral shed light on what was at the time fresh wounds to the scientific field.

Last April, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut lost its funding, closing the doors of a centre critical for the collection of data on air quality, climate change and the ozone.

The following month, the federal government announced it would cease funding the Experimental Lakes Area, a large operation that monitored everything from ecological systems to climate change.

The month after that, the government passed Bill C-38, also known as the “omnibus bill,” over one quarter of which had direct impacts on science-based decision making at the federal level. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was ditched and its agency crippled; the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was nixed; the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Species at Risk Act were weakened; several environmental monitoring programs were killed; the list goes on.

“You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that’s not affected by the cutbacks,” says Prof. Thomas Duck, who works with the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University.

He’s also a former PEARL researcher and will be participating in Halifax’s Stand Up for Science. On top of seeing his Arctic studies crumble, Duck has seen much of his high-tech laser radar work in Halifax disappear, and his beloved colleagues leave the country for opportunities elsewhere.

It’s not just the lack of funding that has dissuaded them; Duck, who has been vocal about the cutbacks, says the government has muzzled scientists, breaking off critical communication lines with the media and the general public.

Although cuts to scientific research have occurred across many fields, Duck and Gibbs agree that environmental science has been the hardest hit.

“This government certainly hasn’t hidden the fact that one of the goals of their mandate is to make Canada an energy super player, and it’s suspected that a lot of the cutting of environmental monitoring was to help expand oil development without having to run into science saying that that’s not good,” says Gibbs.

Cuts to environmental monitoring have also led to a lack of publicly available evidence to inform discussions across Canada on the oil sands, says Duck.

“It appears now that our current government would like to be governing in the dark,” he says. “They would rather develop their policies based on something other than evidence. How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess.”

The ramifications can already be felt on the ground, says Duck. In Nova Scotia, a local Environment Canada team that tracked mercury levels in the province was eliminated, potentially endangering the ecosystem and residents.

Duck says Environment Canada “is a really damaged organization” that could take a “generation or more” to rebuild.

Outside of the environmental field, Gibbs says Canada is reeling from the 2010 decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census. This May, when the first results of the National Household Survey since the change were released, statisticians lamented a lack of confidence in the numbers.

Whether they agree with these changes or not, Duck says it is difficult for provinces to counteract them. Many, like Nova Scotia, have little money for scientific research funding, a budgetary item historically taken up by the feds. However, Duck says provinces can impose their own safeguards against changes to environmental protection policy by putting their own regulatory acts and bodies into action.

Gibbs says Stand Up for Science serves as a message to the federal government that now is the time to correct some of its decisions before its too late.

The Halifax event, featuring Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie, will take place at the Dalhousie Student Union Building (6163 University Ave.) on  Sept. 16 at 1 p.m.  Scientific research projects by Dalhousie faculty and students will also be on display.

Censorship is alive and well in Canada – just ask government scientists February 24, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Civil Liberties, Media, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: Canada under the leadership of J. Edgar Harper.

Elizabeth Renzetti

The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Feb. 22 2013, 8:27 PM EST

Last updated Saturday, Feb. 23 2013, 9:01 AM EST

 

Freedom to Read Week begins on Feb. 24, bringing with it the perfect opportunity to kick the tires of democracy and make sure the old jalopy’s still running as she should.

What’s that you say? The bumper fell off when you touched it? The engine won’t turn over? That’s not so good. Better look under the hood.

We like to think of censorship as something that happens over there, in the faraway places where men break into houses at night to smash computers, or arrive in classrooms to remove books they don’t like. Not in lovely, calm, respectful Canada. Here we don’t necessarily notice freedoms being eroded slowly, grain by grain, “like sands through the hourglass,” if you’ll allow me to quote from Days of Our Lives.

Just ask Canada’s government scientists. Oh wait, you can’t ask them, because they’ve got duct tape over their mouths (metaphorical duct tape, but hey – it’s still painful). This week the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch asked federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to investigate claims that scientists are being prohibited from speaking freely with journalists – and through them, the public.

In a report called Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, the UVic researchers present some chilling findings: Scientists are either told not to speak to journalists or to spout a chewed-over party line, rubber-stamped by their PR masters; the restrictions are particularly tight when a journalist is seeking information about research relating to climate change or the tar sands; Environment Canada scientists require approval from the Privy Council Office before speaking publicly on sensitive topics “such as climate change or protection of polar bear and caribou.”

You wouldn’t want the average citizen to learn too much about caribou, now. Who knows how crazy he could get with that kind of information? It could lead to panel discussions about Arctic hares, town halls on ptarmigans. The report states that government scientists are “frustrated,” which is hardly surprising. It’s like hiring Sandy Koufax and never letting him pitch.

The other thing that the report makes clear is how deliberate this strategy is: “The federal government has recently made concerted efforts to prevent the media – and through them, the general public – from speaking to government scientists, and this, in turn, impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern.”

This is not an issue that’s going away. The Harper government’s heavy-handed control of scientists’ research has raised concerns across the world for a few years, including condemnation from such bastions of Marxism as Nature magazine.

A couple thousand scientists from across the country marched on Parliament Hill last July to protest cuts in research (many in the highly sensitive area of environment and climate change) and restrictions on their ability to speak freely about their work. They created what might be the best chant in the history of political protest: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!”

Last week, Margaret Munro of Postmedia News reported that a University of Delaware scientist was up in arms over a new confidentiality agreement brought in by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “I’m not signing it,” Andreas Muenchow told the reporter. What does this mean for bilateral co-operation on research? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The Vise-Grip on information is tightening and Ottawa is the muscle. Last month, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression released a report about the dire state of freedom of information requests: “Canada’s access to information system is in a deep crisis and without urgent reform could soon become dysfunctional,” the report noted. That means fewer requests being processed, at a more glacial pace, with more of the juicy bits blacked out by the government censor’s pen. This is the good stuff, people. The stuff the government doesn’t want you to know about. The stuff that’s kept in a filing cabinet in Gatineau under a sign that says, “Nothing here. Nope. Just a three-week-old tuna sandwich. And it’s radioactive.” This is the information we need to keep an eye on the government’s internal gears – and it’s being withheld.

Canada recently plummeted 10 places to No. 20 in the World Press Freedom Index, which measures how unfettered a country’s media is. Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, is concerned about the access-to-information issue and about the protection of journalists’ sources. The beacon we should now follow is Jamaica, whose press freedoms rank highest in the region.

It’s the perfect time to welcome Freedom to Read Week. There are events all over Canada and countless ways to celebrate our precious liberties. Bring your kids to the library. Read something you shouldn’t. Even better, write something you shouldn’t. A letter to your MP, perhaps?

Creation Science vs. Evolution February 18, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Science and Technology.
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image001

Should Taxpayers Be Funding Private Schools That Teach Creationism? February 1, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: What is at issue here is not only the question of publicly funding the idiotic notion of creationism, but the very substance of public education.  Public education (advocated by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto) is a sine qua non of democracy.  The massive effort by the extreme right to privatize public education, aided and abetted by Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is aimed at replacing what is left of democracy in the United States with theocratic tinged militarized corporatism.

John Scalzi (CC BY 2.0)
Part of an exhibit at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.

By Zack Kopplin

According to so-called education reform advocates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, school vouchers, which allow parents to direct state money to private schools of their choice, are essential because “families need the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.” From Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, to Newark, N.J.’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, these programs are backed by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they enjoy the support of powerful interest groups such as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the American Federation for Children.

Voucher programs have been established in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and they are spreading as Texas and Tennessee attempt to create ones of their own. As the use of vouchers has expanded across the country in recent years, new questions have arisen that extend beyond concerns about their appropriateness and legality. We’ve pushed standards, testing and accountability for public schools, so why shouldn’t private institutions receiving vouchers have to meet those same requirements? Should private institutions be allowed to ignore state science standards and teach their students creationism while receiving taxpayer money? Does learning about biblical creation, rather than evolution, really help to meet students’ needs?

I first investigated the relationship between creationism and voucher programs after reading an AlterNet article in June about Eternity Christian Academy in Louisiana. Now removed from the state’s voucher program, the school was using the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum to teach students that the mythical Loch Ness Monster existed and somehow disproved evolution. As I looked further into Louisiana’s program, I found that there wasn’t just one school but at least 20 private ones getting vouchers and thus receiving millions of taxpayer dollars. After reviewing my research, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill wrote that “vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”

This isn’t just a Louisiana problem. It seems clear that the U.S. is facing a national creationism epidemic. In an exposé I wrote posted by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, I identified hundreds of additional voucher schools in nine states and the District of Columbia using dozens of different creationist curriculums. These schools are receiving tens of millions of dollars, and maybe even hundreds of millions, to teach religious beliefs in violation of state science standards. With 164 such campuses, Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program contained the highest concentration of creationist voucher schools I was able to uncover. Indiana, which has been marketed as the “gold standard” for voucher accountability, has at least 37 such schools teaching creationism. A couple of its campuses proudly advertise that their students are taken to the Creation Museum on field trips. So far, I’ve discovered 311 creationist voucher schools across the country.

Those 311 schools are not the only taxpayer funded institutions teaching creationism. There are likely hundreds more. Although many are difficult to find, either because they don’t have websites or don’t advertise their creationist curriculum, lots of voucher schools fit the profile of creationist campuses that are already known. On top of this, two states, Arizona and Mississippi, have voucher programs but don’t release the names of participating schools. Officials with the Arizona Department of Education confirmed to me that every private school in the state is eligible to participate in the program, and since I’ve identified private creationist schools there that could be involved, there is little doubt that Arizona is funding some of them. I believe it’s a safe bet that every school voucher program in the country is financing creationism.

These campuses would be shut if they were subject to the same standards as public institutions. The courts have shot down the teaching of creationism and intelligent design with public money over and over again, so why are we letting taxpayer funded private voucher schools teach them? The scientists and educators who devised both state science standards and the national common core standards knew creationism was pseudo-science that would not help American students get the education they need to succeed in a global, 21st century economy. That’s why we don’t teach creationism in public schools. Taxpayers should be outraged that their hard-earned dollars are enabling the mis-education of private school students.

Aside from not meeting these basic academic standards, many voucher schools suffer from other significant problems. Louisiana bloggers have exposed profiteering prophets who sought to capitalize on taxpayer funding for private schools. The Miami New Times reports that voucher schools in Florida are being run by administrators who “include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.” A school in Louisiana’s program was slated to receive millions of dollars from vouchers but lacked the facilities needed to house new students.

Proponents of vouchers argue that diverting money from public to private schools will help students learn by increasing inter-campus competition. But when voucher programs contain institutions that teach creationism instead of science, it’s easy to see that damage is being done to students whose futures are jeopardized by poor education.

Although a judge recently ruled that the way Louisiana funds its school voucher program is unconstitutional, it continues to operate as the state appeals the decision. Similarly, the voucher program in Colorado has been halted by a court injunction. But given the aggressive activity of taxpayer funded voucher programs across the country, we need to fight to make sure that no additional ones are created. And we need to stop politicians in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin from following through on plans to expand already existing programs. Today’s students and our nation’s future demand it.

Zack Kopplin is a science education advocate and winner of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education and the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.

U.S. election: Charles Darwin gets 4,000 write-in votes in Georgia November 9, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Science and Technology.
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David Beasley
Reuters

ATLANTA- A Georgia congressman who attacked the theory of evolution found himself with an unlikely opponent in Tuesday’s U.S. election, when 4,000 voters in one county cast write-in ballots for the 19th century father of evolution, British naturalist Charles Darwin.

In a Sept. 27 speech, Paul Broun, a physician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee, called evolution and the Big Bang Theory, “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Since Broun, a Republican, had no opposition in the general election, a University of Georgia plant biology professor, Jim Leebens-Mack, and others started a write-in campaign for Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution.

“We don’t feel our interests are being best served by an anti-science fundamentalist representing us on the Science, Space and Technology Committee,” Leebens-Mack told Reuters on Friday.

The write-in votes in Athens-Clarke County will not count officially since Darwin was never certified as a write-in candidate, but Leebens-Mack hopes the campaign will encourage a strong candidate, Democrat or Republican, to challenge Broun in 2014.

“I think there could be Democratic opposition, but even more likely is having a rational Republican who understands issues like global warming, scientific reasoning more generally,” said Leebens-Mack.

Broun received 16,980 votes in Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia, Broun’s undergraduate alma mater.

Broun’s office issued a statement on Friday that did not directly address Darwin, saying that the congressman “looks forward to representing the … constitutional conservative principles” of his constituents.

The statement also noted that Broun “received a higher level of support from his constituents in Athens-Clarke County this election cycle than in any of his previous campaigns.”

The New Anti-Science Assault on US Schools February 14, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Published on Sunday, February 12, 2012 by The Guardian/UK


In a disturbing trend, anti-evolution campaigners are combining with climate change deniers to undermine public education
by  Katherine Stewart

You might have thought it was all over after the 2005 decision by the US district court of Middle Pennsylvania (pdf), which ruled in the case of the Dover Area schools that teaching intelligent design is unconstitutional. You might have guessed that they wouldn’t come back after the 1987 US supreme court decision in Edwards v Aguillard, which deemed the teaching of creationism in Louisiana schools unconstitutional. Or maybe you figured that the opponents of evolution had their Waterloo in the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee.

They are back. There are six bills aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution before state legislatures this year: two each in New Hampshire and Missouri, one each in Indiana and Oklahoma. And it’s only February.Charles Darwin, circa 1854: 12 February, his birthday, is marked by International Darwin Day. (photo: Corbis)

For the most part, the authors of these bills are singing a song we’ve heard before. Jerry Bergevin, the Republican sponsor of one of the New Hampshire bills, says of evolution that “It’s a worldview and it’s godless.” He blames the teaching of evolution for Nazism and Columbine. Josh Brecheen, the sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, wants to stop the teaching of “the religion of evolution.” These legislators, and their colleagues in Missouri and Indiana, trot out the hoary line that evolution is “just a theory” and that real science means saying that every point of view is just as good as any other.

Most of these bills aren’t likely to get anywhere. The Indiana bill, which specifically proposes the teaching of “creation science”, so obviously falls foul of the supreme court’s 1987 ruling that it’s hard to imagine it getting out of committee. The same could be said for the Missouri bill, which calls for the “equal treatment” of “biological evolution and biological intelligent design”.

Still, it’s worth asking: why is this happening now? Well, in part, it’s just that anti-evolution bills are an indicator of the theological temperature in state houses, and there is no question that the temperature has been rising. New Hampshire, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri turned deeper shades of red in the 2010 elections, as did the US Congress.

But there are a couple of new twists that make this same-old story more interesting than usual. One has to do with the temperature in a less metaphorical sense. The Oklahoma bill isn’t properly speaking just an “anti-evolution” bill; it is just as opposed to the “theory” of “global warming”. A bill pending in Tennessee likewise targets “global warming” alongside “biological evolution”. These and other bills aim their rhetoric at “scientific controversies” in plural, and one of the New Hampshire bills does not even bother to specify which controversies it has in mind.

The convergence here is, to some degree, cultural. It just so happens that the people who don’t like evolution are often the same ones who don’t want to hear about climate change. It is also the case that the rhetoric of the two struggles is remarkably similar – everything is a “theory”, and we should “teach the controversy”. But we also cannot overlook the fact is that there is a lot more money at stake in the climate science debate than in the evolution wars. Match those resources with the passions aroused by evolution, and we may have a new force to be reckoned with in the classroom.

The other significant twist has to do with the fact that the new anti-evolution – make that anti-science – bills are emerging in the context of the most vigorous assault on public education in recent history. In Oklahoma, for example, while Senator Brecheen fights the forces of evolution and materialism, the funding for schools is being cut, educational attainments are falling, and conservative leaders are agitating for school voucher systems, which, in the name of “choice”, would divert money from public schools to private schools – many of them religious. The sponsor of Indiana’s anti-science bill, Dennis Kruse, who happens to be chairman of the Senate education committee, is also fighting the two battles at once.

The Heartland Institute – which has received funding in the past from oil companies and is a leading source of climate science skepticism – also lobbies strongly for school vouchers and other forms of “school transformation” that are broadly aimed at undermining the current public school system. The Discovery Institute – a leading voice for intelligent design – has indicated its support of exactly the same “school reform” initiatives.

If you can’t shut down the science, the new science-deniers appear to be saying, you should shut down the schools. It would be a shame if they succeeded in replacing the teaching of science with indoctrination. It would be worse if they were to close the public school house doors altogether.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2012

 

Katherine Stewart

Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author. She has written for the New York Times, Reuters and Marie Claire, and her new book is The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (2012)

 

 

New Hampshire’s New Scopes Trial January 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Saturday 7 January 2012
by: Staff, Diatribe Media                 | Report

New Hampshire took an early lead this year in the effort to dumb down school students and erode the separation of church and state in the education system by introducing two anti-evolution bills to its state legislature (h/t Mother Jones). The two laws are the first of their kind in the state since the late 90’s. According to the National Center for Science Education, House Bill 1149 would:

“[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”

House Bill 1457 would:

“[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.”

State Representative Jerry Bergevin, who introduced HB 1149, believes such legislation is necessary because he thinks evolution is tied to Nazis, communists, and the shooters in the 1999 Columbine massacre. According to Bergevin, the political and ideological views of Darwin and other believers and evolutionary scientists, along with their positions on atheism, must be taught to students as well. The New Hampshire Republican told the Concord Monitor:

“I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It’s a worldview and it’s godless. Atheism has been tried in various societies, and they’ve been pretty criminal domestically and internationally. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the Nazis, China today: they don’t respect human rights.”

He added “As a general court we should be concerned with criminal ideas like this and how we are teaching it. . . . Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there.”

Rep Gary Hopper, who introduced HB1457 said that “science is a creative process, not an absolute thing” and he wants creationism taught in classes “so that kids understand that science doesn’t really have all the answers. They are just guessing.”

The most troubling and ridiculous part of the comments from the legislators introducing these bills is not only the anti science nature of them, but the idea that atheism is on par with murder, totalitarianism, and other “criminal ideas.” The idea that the lack of faith in God by an individual is somehow a violation of human rights shows just how little these Representatives understand of both atheism and human rights. (Full disclosure – I am not an atheist. I have my own faith and religious beliefs and hold them closely and don’t evangelize or prosthelytize)

In a country which touts itself as being the freeist in the world in respect to practicing religion, a representative has no ground to call another person’s spiritual beliefs “criminal.” Furthermore, if anything in the United States violates human rights, it’s the fact that our prison system is out of control, or that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed thousands of innocent civilians, or that our President signed legislation making indefinite detention for Americans a real possibility. It’s simply incredible that these elected representatives can turn a blind eye to real human rights violations while inventing others.

To boot, both Hooper and Bergevin seem to completely misunderstand what teaching evolution involves. The belief that species evolve and change over time does not necessarily invalidate the idea that God exists. Charles Darwin once said that man “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” Even the Catholic Church accepts evolution, with the caveat that God played a role. Bergevin’s idea that a belief in evolution makes murderers implies that plenty of his own faithful friends in Christendom should be treated as criminals.

Seven other states saw similar proposals in 2011, and thankfully, all of them were defeated. The bills in New Hampshire should be pretty quickly and easily defeated, according to the National Center for Science Education. Executive Director Eugenie Scott told the Monitor:

“Evolutionary scientists are Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens and everything. Similarly, their religious views are all over the map, too. . . . If you replace atheism in the bill with Protestantism, or Catholicism, or Judaism or any other view, it’s clear to see it’s not going to pass legal muster.”

While that’s good news, it’s still troubling to even see this debate on the floors of legislative houses in this day and age. If America is to get out of the mess it’s currently in, its legislators need to start tackling present problems, rather than rehash debates settled long ago.

Presators and Robots at War September 19, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Pakistan, Science and Technology, War.
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Roger’s note: read about your tax dollars at work to provide deadly war games for young marines on the PlayStation killing machines.  Since virtually every country in the world has terrorists within and since the US is at war with terrorism, it can “legally” in the name of self-defense bombard at will.  And unmanned predators may be coming soon to a police station near you!

// by Christian Caryl, http://www.opednews.com/Quicklink/Predators-and-Robots-at-Wa-in-General_News-110919-829.html

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the
Twenty-first Century

by P.W. Singer
Penguin,
499 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A
Pilot’s Story

by Lieutenant Colonel Matt J. Martin with Charles W.
Sasser
Zenith, 310 pp., $28.00

caryl_01-092911.jpgMax Becherer/Polaris

The US Air Force’s 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance
Squadron launching an unmanned Predator drone with laser-guided Hellfire
missiles mounted on its wings, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, November 2009

Drones are in the headlines. We read daily about strikes against terrorist
targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs)—remote-controlled aircraft equipped with elaborate sensors and sometimes
weapons as well. Earlier this summer the US sent
Predator drones into action against militants in Somalia, and plans are
reportedly afoot to put the CIA in charge of a drone
offensive against al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. NATO has
dispatched UAVs to Libya. State-of-the-art stealth drones cased the house where
Osama bin Laden was living before US Navy seals staged
their now famous raid. And in a speech a few weeks ago, White House
counterterrorism chief John Brennan made it clear that drones will continue to
figure prominently in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. On
August 22, a CIA drone killed the number-two al-Qaeda
leader in the mountains of Pakistan.

Most of us have probably heard by now how extraordinary this technology is.
Many of the UAV strikes in South Asia are actually
orchestrated by operators sitting at consoles in the United States. US Air Force Colonel Matt Martin gives a unique first-person
account of the strange split consciousness of this new type of warfare in his
book Predator. Even as his body occupies a seat in a control room in
Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, his mind is far removed, following a suspicious
SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tailing Taliban
fighters along a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. “I was already starting to refer
to the Predator and myself as ‘I,’ even though the airplane was thousands of
miles away,” Martin notes ruefully.

Notifying Marines on the ground that he’s arriving on the scene in
Afghanistan, he has to remind himself that he’s not actually arriving
anywhere—he’s still in his seat on the base. “Although it was only shortly after
noon in Nevada,” he writes, “I got the yawns just looking at all that snow and
darkness” on the ground outside Kabul. He can hardly be blamed for the
confusion. The eerie acuity of vision afforded by the Predator’s multiple
high-powered video cameras enables him to watch as the objects of his interest
light up cigarettes, go to the bathroom, or engage in amorous adventures with
animals on the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under
observation as they do.

Even though home and wife are just a few minutes’ drive down the road from
his battle station, the peculiar detachment of drone warfare does not
necessarily insulate Martin from his actions. Predator attacks are
extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and
the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions
when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just before
his Hellfire missile arrives on target. Allied bomber pilots in World War II killed millions of civilians but rarely had occasion to
experience the results on the ground. Drone operators work with far greater
accuracy, but the irony of the technology is that its operators can see their
accidental victims—two little boys and their shattered bikes, in one especially
heartrending case Martin describes—in excruciating detail. Small wonder that
studies by the military have shown that UAV operators
sometimes end up suffering the same degree of combat stress as other
warfighters.1

And yet the US military does little to discourage the
notion that this peculiar brand of long-distance warfare has a great deal in
common with the video-gaming culture in which many young UAV operators have grown up. As one military robotics
researcher tells Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War, “We modeled
the controller after the PlayStation because that’s what these eighteen-,
nineteen-year-old Marines have been playing with pretty much all of their
lives.” And by now, of course, we also have video games that incorporate drones:
technology imitating life that imitates technology.

Drones are not remarkable because of their weaponry. There is
nothing especially unusual about the missiles they carry, and even the largest
models are relatively lightly armed. They are not fast or nimble. What makes
them powerful is their ability to see and think. Most of the bigger drones now
operated by the US military can take off, land, and fly
by themselves. The operators can program a destination or a desired patrol area
and then concentrate on the details of the mission while the aircraft takes care
of everything else. Packed with sensors and sophisticated video technology, UAVs
can see through clouds or in the dark. They can loiter for hours or even days
over a target—just the sort of thing that bores human pilots to tears. Of
course, the most significant fact about drones is precisely that they do not
have pilots. In the unlikely event that a UAV is shot
down, its operator can get up from his or her console and walk away.

So far, so good. But there are also quite a few things about drones that you
might not have heard yet. Most Americans are probably unaware, for example, that
the US Air Force now trains more UAV operators each year than traditional pilots. (Indeed, the
Air Force insists on referring to drones as “remotely piloted aircraft” in order
to dispel any suspicions that it is moving out of the business of putting humans
into the air.) As I write this, the US aerospace
industry has for all practical purposes ceased research and development work on
manned aircraft. All the projects now on the drawing board revolve around
pilotless vehicles. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies around the country
eagerly await the moment when they can start operating their own UAVs. The
Federal Aviation Administration is considering rules that will allow police
departments to start using them within the next few years (perhaps as early as
2014). Soon, much sooner than you realize, your speeding tickets will be issued
electronically to your cell phone from a drone hovering somewhere over the
interstate. The US Customs Service has already used UAVs
to sneak up on drug-smuggling boats that easily evade noisier conventional
aircraft.

Robots that fly get most of the attention. In fact, though, UAVs represent
only one small part of the action in military robotics. As Singer recently told
me, there are already more robots operating on the ground (15,000) than in the
air (7,000). The US Army uses its mechanical warriors to
find and disarm roadside bombs, survey the battlefield, or shoot down incoming
artillery shells. Though these land-based robots may seem a bit more primitive
than their airborne cousins, they are catching up quickly. The models in
development include the bizarre BigDog, an eerily zoomorphic quadruped designed
to help soldiers carry heavy loads over difficult terrain, and BEAR, a vaguely humanoid machine on caterpillar tracks that
can lift loads of up to 500 pounds.

The US Navy is experimenting with machines of its
own. It recently unveiled a robot jet ski designed to sniff out attackers who
might try to sneak up on US ships underwater. The Navy
has developed harmless-looking (and environmentally friendly) sailboats packed
with high-tech surveillance gear that can pilot themselves around the world, if
need be. Robot submersibles, too, are in the works. Unconstrained by the
life-support requirements of manned submarines, these automated spies could
spend months on underwater patrol, parking themselves at the bottom of enemy
harbors and observing everything that goes in or out. So battery life becomes
the main constraint. Some scientists are trying to solve it by enabling the
underwater drone to feed off organic matter lying on the sea floor (known as a
“mud battery”).

So far none of these water-borne robots seem to be carrying torpedoes. The
army, however, is already experimenting with robots that can shoot. In his book,
Singer describes SWORDS, a tracked vehicle equipped with
a suite of cameras that see farther than the human eye even while covering
multiple angles. The machine can be armed with a 50-caliber machine gun or a
variety of other weapons. The SWORDS zoom camera and its
weapon can be perfectly synchronized, and the machine makes for a much more
stable platform than a soft, breathing, frightened human body lying prone in the
midst of a battlefield. Singer writes:

In an early test of its guns, the robot hit the bull’s-eye of a
target seventy out of seventy tries. In a test of its rockets, it hit the target
sixty-two out of sixty-two times. In a test of its antitank rockets, it hit the
target sixteen out of sixteen times. A former navy sniper summed up its
“pinpoint precision” as “nasty.” …Since it is a precisely timed machine pulling
the trigger, the “one shot” mode means that any weapon, even a machine gun, can
be turned into a sniper rifle.

Singer described this system two years ago. In the feverish world of military
robotics, 2009 already feels like a distant era, so we can only surmise how far
SWORDS has progressed since then. Researchers are now
testing UAVs that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development
can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones
or robots together into “swarms”—clouds or crowds of machines that would share
their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge
instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is
probably not that far away. At ETH in Zurich,
Switzerland’s equivalent of MIT, engineers have linked
miniature quadrocopters (drones equipped with four sets of rotors for maximum
maneuverability) into small networks that can deftly toss balls back and forth
to each other without any human commands.

The technology transfixes. The capabilities are seductive; so,
too, is the lure of seeming invulnerability. The Taliban has no air force. Its
foot soldiers do not have night vision or the ability to see through overcast
skies, but they can sometimes hear the drones circling in the sky above. David
Rohde, the New York Times correspondent who was held captive by the
Taliban for seven months in 2009, described in his account of the experience
what it is like to be on the ground while Predators and Reapers are on the
prowl. “Two deafening explosions shook the walls of the compound where the
Taliban held us hostage,” he writes. “My guards and I dived to the floor as
chunks of dirt hurtled through the window.” A missile fired by a US drone has obliterated two cars a few hundred yards
away:

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying
presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be
heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots
in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be
immolated without warning….

Later, I learned that one guard called for me to be taken to the
site of the attack and ritually beheaded as a video camera captured the moment.
The chief guard overruled him.2

This particular strike, it turns out, has killed seven militants, zero
civilians. Most of the attacks are remarkably precise, as Rohde writes. Yet this
is almost beside the point: “The Taliban were able to garner recruits in their
aftermath,” he writes, “by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.”

His point is borne out by a recent study conducted by Peter Bergen and
Katherine Tiedemann, two analysts at the New America Foundation in Washington
who have been tracking drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan ever since
the US began conducting attacks there in June 2004.
Though reliable information from that part of the world is extremely hard to
come by—the story of Rohde’s kidnapping explains why foreign journalists tend to
steer clear of the area—Bergen and Tiedemann have carefully analyzed media
reports for the details of each attack. While acknowledging the difficulties of
obtaining reliable data (and the wildly divergent information issued by American
and Pakistani official sources), they conclude that the attacks have grown
steadily more accurate. According to Bergen and Tiedemann, “During the first two
years of the Obama administration, around 85 percent of those reported killed by
drone strikes were militants; under the Bush administration, it was closer to 60
percent.”3 At the same time the authors
note that the strikes have probably been far less successful than US officials claim at killing militant leaders. Most of the
dead, Bergen and Tiedemann conclude, are likely rank-and-file fighters. (A newer
study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London arrives at a somewhat
higher overall civilian casualty rate.)

Though such statistics are remarkable when measured against the history of
warfare, they are, of course, little consolation to the families of those
innocent bystanders who have been killed along with the jihadis. And, as Bergen
and Tiedemann rightly note, the precision of the killing is only one small part
of the story. Polls show, just as Rohde suspected, that Pakistanis
overwhelmingly believe that most of those who die in the attacks are civilians—a
perception that is undoubtedly aggravated by the impunity with which the drones
stage their raids on Pakistani territory. Dennis Blair, director of national
intelligence from 2009 to 2010, recently made a similar observation in The
New York Times
: “Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our
soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of
warfare without cost to its own troops.” (While the Pakistani government
publicly expresses its disapproval of the strikes, in private Pakistani leaders
have provided intelligence and logistical support for the campaign—a fact that
they are eager to conceal from the public.) The number of terrorist attacks in
Pakistan has risen sharply as the drone campaign has accelerated. Bergen and
Tiedemann conclude that the broader political effects of the UAV campaign may well cancel out some of its tactical
benefits.

One remedy they propose is to take control of the drone program away from the
CIA, which currently runs the campaign in the tribal
areas, and transfer it to the military.4
This offers several advantages. In contrast to the CIA,
which denies the very existence of the program and accordingly reveals nothing
about the criteria by which it chooses its targets, the US Department of Defense can at least be held publicly
accountable for its conduct and is much more likely to respond to pressure to
keep its use of UAVs within the bounds of international law. This cannot be said
of the CIA’s use of drones for the purposes of “targeted
killing”—particularly given that the strikes are being secretly conducted
against targets in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at
war, under ill-defined and murky circumstances.

The legal issues involved are complex. Philip Alston, an expert in
international law appointed by the United Nations to examine the question,
asserted in a report that, “Outside the context of armed conflict, the use of
drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.”5 The trick, of course, is how we define “armed conflict”
in an age of non-state-affiliated terrorist and insurgent groups operating from
places where the writ of a central government does not extend. International
law, some experts say, gives the US the right to protect
its forces in Afghanistan against attacks staged by al-Qaeda and its allies in
the tribal areas—while whether the drone strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty
depends largely on agreements we have with the Pakistani government, a point
that remains somewhat mysterious.

The Obama administration might help matters by providing an explanation of
the legal rationale for the program. But so far it has declined to do so, aside
from a brief statement by a leading State Department legal adviser that cited
the internationally recognized right to self-defense.6 In this respect it is only to be welcomed that scholars
around the world are engaged in an active debate about the legal implications of
the drone campaigns. Given that more than forty countries around the world are
now experimenting with military robots of their own, the United States cannot
rest on the assumption that it will retain a monopoly over this technology
forever. The day when US forces are attacked by a
drone—perhaps even one operated by a terrorist—is not far away.

Many of the recent books on UAVs predictably dwell on the
technical specs and astonishing capabilities of these new weapons systems.
Singer provides us with plenty of the same, but the great virtue of his book is
precisely that he also devotes space to the broader questions raised by the
breakneck expansion of military robotics. As he writes, the US government is using drones to conduct a military campaign
against the sovereign state of Pakistan. Yet no one in Congress has ever pressed
the President for any sort of legal declaration of hostilities—for the simple
reason that the lives of American military personnel are not at stake when the
Predators set off on their missions.

In fact, as Singer shows, the ethical and legal implications of the new
technology already go far beyond the relatively circumscribed issue of targeted
killing. Military robots are on their way to developing considerable autonomy.
As noted earlier, UAVs can already take off, land, and fly themselves without
human intervention. Targeting is still the exclusive preserve of the human
operator—but how long will this remain the case? As sensors become more powerful
and diverse, the amount of data gathered by the machines is increasing
exponentially, and soon the volume and velocity of information will far exceed
the controller’s capacity to process it all in real time, meaning that more and
more decision-making will be left to the robot.

A move is already underway toward systems that allow a single operator to
handle multiple drones simultaneously, and this, too, will tend to push the
technology toward greater autonomy. We are not far from the day when it will
become manifest that our mechanical warriors are better at protecting the lives
of our troops than any human soldier, and once that happens the pressure to let
robots take the shot will be very hard to resist. Pentagon officials who have
been interviewed on the subject predictably insist that the decision to kill
will never be ceded to a machine. That is reassuring. Still, this is an easy
thing to say at a point when robots are not yet in the position to take the
initiative against the enemy on a battlefield. Soon, much sooner than most of us
realize, they will be able to do just that.

We have only just begun to explore what this means. Singer quotes Marc
Garlasco, a recognized expert on the law of war at Human Rights Watch. “This new
technology creates pressure points for international law,” Garlasco says. “You
will be trying to apply international law written for the Second World War to
Star Trek technology.” Singer continues:

Another fundamental premise of the human rights group, and for
broader international law, is that soldiers in the field and the leaders who
direct them must be held accountable for any violations of the laws of war.
Unmanned systems, though, muddy the waters surrounding war crimes. “War crimes
need both a violation and intent,” says Garlasco. “A machine has no
capacity to want to kill civilians, it has no desires…. If they are incapable of
intent, are they incapable of war crimes?” And if the machine is not
responsible, who does the group seek to hold accountable, and where exactly do
they draw the line? “Who do we go after, the manufacturer, the software
engineer, the buyer, the user?”

Later Singer notes that the US has consistently
applied an expanded right of self-defense for its aircraft operating in
conflicts around the world. When an enemy radar “lights up” a US plane, the pilot has the right to fire first without
waiting to be attacked. All fine and good. But then imagine that the aircraft
involved is not a plane but a UAV:

If an unmanned plane flying near the border of another nation is
fired on, does it have the right to fire back at that nation’s missile sites and
the humans behind them, even in peacetime? What about the expanded
interpretation, the right to respond to hostile intent, where the drone is just
targeted by radar? Is the mere threat enough for the drone to fire first at the
humans below?

The answers depend on how wide the “self” in self-defense is
defined.

It turns out, Singer explains, that the US Air Force
currently operates according to the principle that a pilotless aircraft, as an
entity representing the people who sent it on its mission, “has the same rights
as if a person were inside it,” and that this “interpretation of robot rights is
official policy for unmanned reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf.” But
the situation is evolving rapidly. The next generation of military robots is
likely to have a high degree of operational independence without yet achieving
the kind of intelligent self-awareness that entails responsibility. Luckily
there is already something of a legal precedent for handling similar situations.
“As odd as it sounds,” Singer writes, “pet law might then be a useful resource
in figuring out how to assess the accountability of autonomous systems.”

This is a particularly thought-provoking conclusion given that the
researchers now working on military robots seem especially eager to ransack the
biological world for elegant solutions to the design problems that have to be
overcome. There is a snake-shaped robot that can rear itself up in the grass
when it wants to scan its surroundings. Tiny surveillance robots scuttle up
walls like bugs, and robot flyers flap their wings. The Navy is testing
submersibles that swim like fish. Researchers in the UK
have developed a robot whose sensors mimic rat whiskers—since so far no engineer
has managed to come up with a sensor system that is better at navigating in
total darkness.

Whether we like it or not, war has often been a powerful goad to
technological innovation. Now technology is on the verge of supplanting the
human soldier altogether—with consequences that can only be guessed. The
question in the case of military robotics, even at this relatively early stage,
is the extent to which we will manage to retain control over the process.
Whether we are ready or not, the answer will soon be clear.

—August 30, 2011

1 See Scott Lindlaw, “Remote-Control Warriors Suffer War Stress,” Associated
Press, August 7, 2008.

2 “A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope,” Part Four of “Held by the Taliban,”
The New York Times , October 20, 2009.

3 Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War: The
Effects of the US Drone Program in Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs ,
July/August 2011.

4 The CIA operates its drones from control stations in or around its
headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It is likely that many of the operators are
actually civilian contractors.

5 Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary
or Arbitrary Executions,” United Nations, Human Rights Council, May 28, 2010.
See also David Kretzmer, “Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists:
Exra-Judicial Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?” The European
Journal of International Law
, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005).

6 Harold Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department, devoted a few brief
remarks to the subject in a speech last year, available at http://www.state.gov/s/l/
releases/remarks/139119.htm.

  1. 1See Scott Lindlaw, “Remote-Control Warriors Suffer War Stress,” Associated
    Press, August 7, 2008.
  2. 2″A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope,” Part Four of “Held by the Taliban,”
    The New York Times , October 20, 2009.
  3. 3Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War: The Effects
    of the US Drone Program in Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs , July/August
    2011.
  4. 4The CIA operates its drones from control stations in or around its
    headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It is likely that many of the operators are
    actually civilian contractors.
  5. 5Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or
    Arbitrary Executions,” United Nations, Human Rights Council, May 28, 2010. See
    also David Kretzmer, “Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: Exra-Judicial
    Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?” The European Journal of
    International Law
    , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005).
  6. 6Harold Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department, devoted a few brief
    remarks to the subject in a speech last year, available at http://www.state.gov/s/l/
    releases/remarks/139119.htm.

Dawkins’ “The God Delusion:” a Must Read September 17, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in About God, About Religion, Religion, Science and Technology.
4 comments

Roger Hollander, September 17, 2011

I am re-reading Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” one of the most important reads for me in the past years.  If you are a fan of science and reason over ignorance and prejudice, you will love Dawkins.  He is a world-class scientist (evolutionary biologist), but his prose is both literate and replete with humor, and his scientific explanations are for the most part understandable for the lay person.  A quotation he attributes to Fred Hoyle almost says it all.  When Hoyle refused to give an educated opinion to an interviewer who asked him to speculate about life on other planets, the interviewer asked him for his gut feeling.  Hoyle replied that he tries not to think with his gut.

I have reviewed “The God Delusion” elsewhere on this blog (http://rogerhollander.wordpress.com/category/current-posts/a-rogers-original-essays/about-religion/), here I will just give you a taste of some of the many little gems you will find in this outstanding work.

I begin with this quote from a United States Senator:

“There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs.  There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls the supreme being.  But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.  The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom.  They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 per cent.  If you disagree with these religious groups  on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.  I am frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person  must belive in A, B, C or D.  Just who do they think they are?  And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate.  I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans … “

At the end of this essay I will give you the name of the Senator who make this statement.  Take a guess.

Here are the mottos of the two major divisions in Christianity:

“There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger.  This is the disease of curiosity.  It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”  St. Augustine

“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God … Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.”  Martin Luther

As for humor:

In Northern Ireland: “Yes but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

Citing a comedian: “All religions are the same.  Religion is guilt, with different holidays.”

You will learn from Dawkins a lot about Darwin and natural selection.  You will watch him obliterate the arguments of the so-called “creationists” and the weasels who try to disguise creationism as “intelligent design.”  He will make you think twice if you think that agnosticism makes more sense than atheism; and he will show you the distinction between the notion of a God Creator who continues to intervene in creation, and what he refers to “Einsteinian religion,” the awe inspired by knowledge of the amazing universe we inhabit.

And he has an answer for you if you argue that you have a religious belief in God but not the kind of ridiculous belief in a God with a beard in the Sky and a literal interpretation of the Bible.  The answer is that you can call yourself religious or Christian, but the overwhelming majority of those who call themselves Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) do believe in that Personal God who created it all and continues to communicate with us and intervene where He chooses (and not to intervene where He chooses not (Pope John Paul II, when he suffered an assassination attempt in Rome, attributed his survival  to intervention of Our Lady of Fatima: “a maternal hand guided the bullet.”  Watkins wonders why she didn’t guide the bullet to miss him entirely, and he speaks up for giving credit to the surgeons who operated for six hours to save him.  He also wonders why the Lady of Fatima, and whether the Ladies of Guadalupe, Medjugorje, Akita, Zeitoun and Garabandal were too busy at the time to lend a hand).

Now here is the name of the Senator who is responsible for the quote complaining about the pressures from organized religion.  You were wrong if you guessed a liberal like Ted Kennedy or Al Franken.  The answer is: Barry Goldwater, and he ended the quote as follows: “… I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.” (emphasis added).

And, oh yes, my favorite one liner of them all: “Blasphemy is a victemless crime.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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