Monday, August 26, 2013

"Terrorism" as a concept grows more meaningless by the day.

In my class today we talked about vagueness, and by sheer coincidence I came across two stories in the news that show just how vague and meaningless the terms "Terrorism" and "Terrorist" have become in US and international discourse. In both cases it becomes clear that the word now means, "anyone who does something the government doesn't like, or who might possibly do something the government doesn't like at any point in the future."

The first story, reported by Germany's Der Spiegel, and picked up by Reuters, continues the series of revelations of the extent of the US government's spying apparatus. In this case the reports show that the US has successfully bugged over 80 embassies across the world, as well as bugging various UN facilities and organizations. According to Der Spiegel, "The surveillance is intensive and well organised and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists..." Despite this, the US government continues to justify its wide ranging spy apparatus as responding to the threat of terrorism. Given the actions of the UK toward David Miranda and the US complicity in them as well as the massive scope of domestic spying in the US, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US and the UK governments literally regard every single person on the planet (and possibly those orbiting in space) as a terrorist or terrorism suspect.

Looking internationally, the second story I want to discuss notes that other governments (in this case the current military regime in Egypt) are taking note of how the US operates and are using the same techniques to suppress dissent and control their own populations.
Ten days ago, the police arrested two left-leaning Canadians — one of them a filmmaker specializing in highly un-Islamic movies about sexual politics — and implausibly announced that they were members of the Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group backing the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. In Suez this month, police and military forces breaking up a steelworkers strike charged that its organizers were part of a Brotherhood plot to destabilize Egypt.
Here we can see quite clearly that the Egyptian government is using the threat of Islamic terrorism to crack down on individuals and groups engaging in actions that are perceived as injurious or damaging to the current regime--a regime, it should be noted, that recently overthrew the democratically elected president of Egypt.

The one thread that unites these disparate stories from across the world is that the term "terrorism" is being exploited by governments to consolidate power over their populations. And this is because a word that was vague and undefined to begin with has been expanded in order to provide a rationale for these governments to do whatever they want without being held accountable by the people who are ostensibly citizens of the countries in question. Orwell proves to be more prescient by the day.

h/t to Digby

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

JAQing Off

Today I would like to talk about a special version of the Loaded Question fallacy, one which some commentators have taken to calling JAQing Off. This fallacy was coined by a message board commentator at the JREF forums and is defined as:
1. the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of "just asking questions." 2. asking questions and ignoring the answers.
This is a favorite tactic of many political commentators, with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh being two of the most notorious practitioners. The idea is that one asks a bunch of leading questions, perhaps with a suspicious or conspiratorial tone, all intended to imply that there is something seriously wrong. There is never any positive argument given, just innuendo. Then, when the person is challenged on his assertions, he is able to fall back on the statement, "I'm just asking questions." As is often the case, the fine folks at South Park give us the clearest articulation of this issue:

Now let me be clear, asking questions is one of the best ways to increase one's knowledge and understanding of the world and there is nothing wrong with asking lots of questions (even very nitpicky ones). My classes are most interesting when the students ask lots of questions and challenge the claims I make. The problem with JAQing off is that one isn't asking questions in order to learn more about a topic. Instead, one is asking lots of questions in order to imply that there is something wrong or to make a nasty claim about a person. The key difference is that when one is JAQing off, one doesn't really care about the answer to the questions asked. The person JAQing off is not trying to learn anything about the world, and will likely ignore the answers given. Again, this is because JAQing off isn't about inquiry, it is about satisfying one's own desires to smear and attack others without being held accountable for one's actions.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vaccines and Science

In reading my usual daily blog posts, I came across a link to this excellent article summarizing the reasons to get vaccinated and to vaccinate one's children. I particularly liked it because it runs through all the evidence (with links) and provides responses to some of the standard anti-vaccine arguments. In so doing the author, Dr. Jennifer A. Raff (with doctorates in Anthropology and Genetics!), does a very nice job of summarizing how science functions and why scientific experiments are really the only way to figure out how the world actually works.  You should read the entire piece, but I want to focus on the following:
Science operates based on the philosophy that the truth is knowable if we design experiments correctly, and we do enough of them to rigorously test our hypotheses. And I hope that you know by now that anyone with a keyboard can make stuff up. Peer review is how we test that someone isn’t making things up. Experts in your field have to agree with your conclusions.
To me, this is the essential point about science and why science is so valuable and important. In this day and age anyone with access to a computer can write and say anything he or she wants. This blog that I write on costs me nothing and I have total freedom to post anything I want. I try to be accurate and I try to ensure that my claims are true, but basically you only have my word (and your own independent analysis) to go on. Science, by contrast, won't accept anything based on someone's say-so. Instead, science consists of a rigorous set of practices and a methodology to eliminate, as much as possible, human bias and human error. In addition, science has peer review whereby other people examine claims and evidence, and retest to ensure that the results are as accurate as they can be. It is often the case that scientists or doctors are accused of being elitists, or in the pocket of this or that special interest group, but even when these claims are true, the methodology of science and the peer review process can weed out these conflicts of interest and get us as close as possible to the Truth. There is simply no other method that we have that can achieve the same results. And this is why, as Dr. Raff writes, "Your physician knows more than the University of Google."

h/t to Pharyngula