Friday, July 6, 2012

What is the Cause of Suicide Terrorism?

In a recent conversation with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins raised a question about terrorist suicide bombers: "what's turned them into this kind of lunatic?" Dawkins' answer to the question was that he could only think it is the powerful force of childhood religious indoctrination such as at a Madrasah or Jesuit school.

Sam Harris replied that the data shows that suicide bombers are not primarily people raised in madrasahs but rather those that convert later in life. Harris's explanation wss that "Its just the spread of memes and people are ready to believe in paradise. There's not that much cognitive work they have to do to believe [in paradise] and if Islam is their source of faith you just have to connect the dots to [religious war and terrorism]. These people really believe what they say they believe, which is not true for most christians"

An alternative theory is presented by Robert Pape from the University of Chicago in his book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism". Pape developed the first comprehensive database of terrorist activity from 1980 to 2003. His results contradict the standard model that terrorism is primarily a product of Islam. In fact his theory rules out religion at all as the primary cause for suicide terrorism.

Pape performed extensive statistical analysis on his database of suicide terrorism. As a result he developed a theory in stark contrast with those presented by Dawkins and Harris. Pape's theory is that suicide terrorism is caused by three factors:

1) A nation (or a group such as the Tamil Tigers that perceives itself as an occupied nation) resisting a large occupation army of another democratic nation.

2) A religious difference between the occupied and occupying nation.

3) An organized campaign with specific political (not religious) goals, such as removal of the occupying troops from part or all of the disputed land. In this campaign the occupiers have an overwhelming military advantage over the occupied people such that conventional military resistance is futile.

The fact that democracies, and only democracies, are targeted for suicide terrorism is an important component of the theory. A favorite talking point of Sam Harris which he uses to support his claim that suicide terrorism is essentially caused by Islam is "where are all the Tibetan terrorists?" China has occupied Tibet for decades and has been as brutal as or more brutal than many of the nations that are targets of suicide terrorism. Why are there no Tibetan suicide bombers? Pape's theory accounts for this. If suicide terrorism is designed to change the behavior of a government it stands to reason that it would be used only against democracies since only democracies are susceptible to public opinion within their own country. The data that Pape analyzes from 1980 to 2003 strongly supports this. All of the targets of suicide terrorism for that period were democracies. Some such as Russia and Turkey were fledgling democracies but all were democracies. The case of Russia is an especially strong supporting data point. There have been Chechens advocating for independence from Russia for a long time but they only turned to suicide terrorism when Russia became a democracy.

Pape does not discount the motivating power of religion to incite violence. However, his theory is not that it is childhood indoctrination (Dawkins) nor a specific religion
(Harris) that incites suicide terrorism but rather a difference in the religion of the occupier and the occupied. Again, his theory is strongly supported by the data. In virtually every case of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003 there was a religious difference between the two sides. For the Tamil Tigers it was Hindus vs. Buddhists. For Al Queda it is Islam vs. Christianity.

The third element of Pape's theory also contradicts those proposed by Dawkins and Harris. Both emphasize the irrational nature of suicide terrorism. Pape shows that on the contrary, all the perpeatrators of suicide terrorism in the time period he studies had specific often realistic goals that they were trying to attain. In fact in some cases the terrorists achieve these goals. Hezbollah achieved their goal of removing US and French troops from Lebanon via the suicide bombing of the US marine baracks. Al Queda achieved its goal of removing US troop from Saudi Arabia via 9/11. Of course the Bush administration would deny that they removed the troops to placate Al Queda but from the perspective of Al Queda this was a victory. Al Queda also achieved its goal of removing Spanish troops from Iraq by the suicide bombing of Spanish trains.

Other example data points from Pape's research are:

* The group responsible for the most suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2003 was the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. A group of Marxists. The Tigers also have the dubious honor of inventing the suicide vest. They are not Muslims. The Tamil Tigers represent Hindus in the small nation of Sri Lanka fighting for independence against a government that represents the Buddhist majority. As Marxists many of the Tigers themselves were actually atheists.

* Even for suicide attacks in Muslim countries for the same time period secular groups account for over a third of the attacks.

* Overall, Islam was associated with approximately half of the suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003.

Part of Pape's research was to interview terrorists he could get access to in captivity.

This video contains an example terrorist interview starting at apx. minute 12

Here are some quotes from that interview that support Pape's theory:

"[The Western Powers] have intentionally targeted Muslim civilians in both the first and second Iraq wars,Somalia, Afghanistan, the Sudan just to give you a few examples and they've done this with the support and backing of their populations and electorates."

"Even if there have been some feeble protests,... the governments that started these wars have been re-elected. They kidnap people and send them to be tortured. I've carried the victims in my arms. Women, children, babies in the womb, you name it they've probably bombed it."

"Five American soldiers gang rape an Iraqi woman and then to hide the evidence kill her and three members of her family."

These quotes support Papes first principle that advocates of suicide attacks were far more concerned with violations of their national boundaries and crimes committed by occupying armies than by religious differences. Suicide terrorists also took into account and assigned moral responsibility to the civilian population of democracies that they felt violated their national sovereignty.

Unlike Dawkins and Harris, Pape's theory is supported by virtually all the data we have on suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003. As advocates for critical thinking Dawkins and Harris need to apply the same rigor and objectivity to discussions of political issues as they would to scientific ones and not simply embrace theories that blame religion without a theoretical framework or supporting data.

In fact, if we look at research described by Robert Trivers in his recent book The Folly of Fools, atheists who truly believe in critical thinking should be especially rigorous when analyzing explanations that blame religion for crimes. In that book Trivers shows overwhelming evidence that people, even scientists, have a predisposition to seek out data that fits into their existing knowledge base. If an atheist is truly interested in the truth, she will be especially diligent when analyzing theories on the negative effects of religion and be open to alternative theories that are supported by strong data.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe In Me (or you)

"I Don't Believe in Atheists" by Chris Hedges is an odd book. For parts of it, where Mr. Hedges argues how the world is a mess because of the Global War on Terror, Global Climate Change, and a whole host of other things I was nodding my head in agreement. However, from that very accurate and depressing summary of the world situation he jumps to the totally unwarranted and unsupported conclusion that somehow its all the fault of science and reason. His argument is that the human race is being destroyed by Utopian rationalists who believe that science can solve all problems.

I acquired his book because it was described as a response to the New Atheists. I was expecting a response to the arguments in The God Delusion or The End of Faith on evidence for the existence of God. I am in violent agreement with those books and I was interested to see how someone whom I respect for his political writing would respond to them. However, Hedges gives up that battle from the start.

He states in the beginning that "The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction... love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil,... and death"

This statement highlights the fundamental difference between Mr. Hedges and myself. Mr. Hedges doesn't care about the truth. He would rather believe something even if its false because he thinks believing that God exists will enable him to contemplate the transcendent whether or not God exists.

I have to admit I'm not 100% sure what Mr. Hedges means by contemplating the transcendent. It sounds as if he means things like falling in love, appreciating beauty, a sense of awe at nature, etc. If that is what he means I do all that stuff without a belief in God. I don't see why you have to believe in God to contemplate the transcendent. Or rather I should say if there is no God then I don't see why some false idea would help contemplate the transcendent, or contemplate anything for that matter. If there was good evidence that God exists then I certainly can understand how contemplating the transcendent might include studying or even worshiping the agent that created the whole thing. I just don't see the flip side. If there is no God then why would you still want to believe in a lie? Whatever the transcendent is I would think that a reverence for truth would be an essential part of it. Unfortunately, Mr Hedges isn't much help here. He never provides an argument to support his thesis that the transcendent can only be contemplated via belief in God. As with in fact virtually everything he says in the book he merely states it as something that is obviously true and needs no support.

Rather than discussions about evidence or proofs for God existence most of the book discusses the history of the world and what a mess it is.
Hedges gives endless examples of how humans can be abysmal to each other. The majority of his examples are related to what the Bush administration labelled the Global War on Terror. This is an example of his incredible ability to ignore basic facts. Equating the Bush administration with atheists and scientists ranks at the level of reasoning one would expect from Sarah Palin or an American Tea Party member.

Mr. Hedges blames all the evil things in the world on anyone who believes that human beings can make progress. In fact he does a lot of blaming and leaps of logic in his book. Just some examples:

* He blames the Enlightenment for the first world war, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia.
* He blames Darwinism for Social Darwinism pretending that one inevitably leads to the other.
* He blames Science in general for Pol Pot (p. 57) and for all the damage done by industry to the environment.
* He claims that its obvious that Christopher Hitchens is still a Trotskyite.
* The biggest leap, its more like a backward somersault, is when Hedges quotes Dawkins saying that Natural Selection is not at all the same as morally justified as proof that Dawkins "builds [his] vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection."

Its not just science and rationalism that Mr. Hedges disdains. He believes that any belief system that holds out the hope for human improvement is evil. So not only does he disdain science and rationalism but all organized religions as well.

He dislikes Islam, Christianity, and all religions that offer "collective salvation" which is pretty much all of them. This is one thing that baffles me about philosophies such as this. By Hedges' own definition the realm of the transcendent is "that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction". Yet he then proceeds to make a rational argument for why most religions are really inadequate for contemplating the transcendent. Granted, its a terrible argument (it seems they are Utopian just like atheist scientists) but still if he really believes his definition of the transcendent then he shouldn't believe it can be reasoned about in the first place.

As I said he never really justifies any of his core arguments. He provides no evidence that a belief in the possibility of human advancement is inherently evil. He simply states that belief in advancement leads to tyranny: "The belief in moral advancement implicitly calls on us to ignore the common good and place our faith in the empowerment of the state. It teaches that everything should be dedicated to private gain... Corporatism is about placing our faith in unchecked corporate advancement, as well as in neutral disciplines of science and technology." (p. 79)

i don't like tyrannical state power or corporatism either. But I don't see how believing that it is possible to improve humanity is synonymous with either of them. It seems to me that the few people that I admire as moral leaders, people like Martin Luther King all believed that it was possible for humans to improve the world.

Ultimately Mr. Hedges book is a good example of how, as Christopher Hitchens would say, "religion spoils everything". Mr. Hedges is a smart man and a good writer. I've admired his political work and his appearances on media such as Democracy Now! for quite some time. Yet when he brings his religious dogma into play he ends up with a world view that is hopeless and looks down on virtually the whole of the human race, both believers and atheists alike. Chris Hedges doesn't believe in me because I'm an atheist, and chances are whether you are a Christian, Jew, Marxist, Muslim, or other, if you believe that there is some hope for the human race he doesn't believe in you either.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Huffpo Lanza Template

I noticed that Dr. Lanza has a new article on The Huffington Post.  For a while I was following his articles because he writes on some topics that I find interesting.  Unfortunately, what he writes is mostly pseudo-science new age tripe but pointing out the errors in his tripe can be a lot of fun. I admit the satisfaction is sort of like setting the level of your chess program down near the bottom and then defeating it.  It can be fun the first couple of times but after a while it gets old. As a result I've only been scanning his articles lately. Looking only for outrageous errors such as proclaiming that Skinner was a proponent of the idea that animals are conscious.

However, as I skimmed through the latest article I had a feeling of deja-vu. I realized that all of Lanza's numerous articles on The Huffington Post followed a predictable pattern:
  • Ask an interesting question
  • Say some vague and unproven things about the interesting question that relate to Biocentrism
  • Make some tangential reference to the interesting question as a way to cite previous work by Dr. Lanza
  • Describe a personal emotional experience that relates to the interesting question
  • Reference books by Dr. Lanza on Biocentrism
Ask an interesting question. I will give Lanza credit he knows how to ask interesting questions. The usual form of the question is “Question? Experiments (new theory, etc.) suggest answer” Examples: Do You Only Live Once? Experiments Suggest Life Not One-Time Deal, Anything Beyond The Universe? New Theory Changes Our Destiny, Can Science Resurrect God? New Scenario Says ‘Yes’.

Say some vague and unproven things about the interesting question that relate to Biocentrism. Biocentrism is Dr. Lanza’s new theory that uses some very interesting evidence from theoretical physics to give scientific credence to traditional religious beliefs such as life after death.

Make some tangential reference to the interesting question as a way to cite previous work by Dr. Lanza. Lately he has taken to cite work he did with the B.F. Skinner. I find this interesting because I’ve studied a bit of psychology and Skinner is about as diametrically opposed to Lanza’s current views as its possible to get. Skinner was a hard core behaviorist. He believed that internal states such as emotions and consciousness were not appropriate subjects for scientific study. Dr. Lanza thinks the consciousness is what defines the universe, or more accurately the multiverse. I left a comment about that on Dr. Lanza's article but it was censored and deleted.

Describe a personal emotional experience that relates to the interesting question. Examples include taking a walk with his dog and seeing how the dog’s perception of the world differed from his, remembering his sister “Bubbles”, and his friend Dennis who died due to a tragic accident.

Reference books by Dr. Lanza on Biocentrism.  The end of each article usually includes a plug for one or more of Dr. Lanza's books on Biocentrism.

I think there is something more serious going on here than just another mediocre new age writer pretending to be profound. Dr. Lanza's posts and the censorship of legitimate criticism of them are part of a disturbing trend at The Huffington Post.  New age and alternative medicine advocates such as Lanza,  Gupta, and Dana Ullman are given great exposure with virtually no counter views from respected scientists.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why Your Brain is NOT a Quantum Computer

Ervin Laszlo has written a number of articles declaring that human brains are quantum computers. As a computer scientist who is also interested in psychology I found the topic to be very interesting. However, as I read the articles I became frustrated with the lack of detail and the way they seemed to put forth provocative ideas with no sound evidence or reasoning behind them. They were still useful to me, sometimes we can learn as much from a poorly thought out idea as a good one. Prior to reading the article I had no idea what a quantum computer was. Unfortunately, I didn’t gain much insight on that from the articles but I did do some research to better understand them. I would like to describe what I found here and describe why I strongly believe your brain is not a quantum computer.

The first important point is that everything I or anyone is about to say about quantum computers is all about the idea of a quantum computer. To date there are no quantum computers and there are many complex unsolved problems (indeed they may be unsolvable problems) that need to be addressed before such computers exist.

The most interesting thing I found on researching quantum computers is that in many ways they aren’t all that different from traditional computers. A traditional computer consists of memory and a Central Processing Unit (CPU) that manipulates the memory. The CPU does things like basic math and moving information from one place to another. The memory is represented as electrical impulses (bits) that can be either on or off, 0 or 1. The essential difference between a traditional computer and a quantum computer is that a quantum computer would take advantage of the very mysterious phenomenon of quantum entanglement. The significance of entanglement is that it offers a model where particles can be described as being in multiple states at the same time. An entangled bit (known as a qubit) can be in the state of on and off at the same time. Qubits allow highly parallel search of a problem space. Rather than investigating each solution one at a time, using a qubit you can test many different alternatives all at the same time.

While qubits and quantum computers offer exciting possibilities to solve certain very complex problems from a computer science standpoint they aren’t that revolutionary. In fact as I looked on the Internet I found some incorrect statements about how Qubits differ from traditional bits. JR Minkel at Scientific American stated in a video “even today’s fastest computers ultimately do things one at a time”. This is absolutely and patently false. Supercomputers in fact work precisely because they do many computations at the same time. In fact its even wrong when considering personal computers. If you have a desktop computer it most likely has at least two CPU’s. That’s one of the things that enables you to have multiple applications up and running at the same time. For supercomputers this is taken to the extreme, they have hundreds or more CPU’s that work in parallel. The difference is that those computers still work with traditional bits that can be either 0 OR 1. A quantum computer working with qubits that can represent both values at the same time would be able to be much more massively parallel than even our fastest supercomputers.

The thing about parallel computing is that it sounds wonderful in principle but its a bit more complicated in practice. Adding 100 CPUs does not at all guarantee that you will cut the time required to solve a problem by 100. There is effort to write a special program that can exploit the benefits of parallelism, essentially divide a big problem into a bunch of smaller problems, solve the smaller problems than combine those solutions into one big solution. Not all problems lend themselves to such a divide and conquer approach. In fact no computer scientist that I came across is talking about quantum computers as a significant step toward artificial intelligence or better understanding the human mind. The emphasis is on specific mathematical problems such as factoring integers which could be useful in code breaking.

So with that background on quantum computers we can address the question: “is there any evidence at all that our brain functions as a quantum computer?” The answer to that is an emphatic no. We do have a model for how a computer can mimic our brain. That model is neural networks, mathematical representations that simulate the biochemical neurons in our brains. That model has proven extremely powerful, to the point where we can use computer neural networks to replicate the pattern matching capabilities, the ability to recognize edges, shapes, even faces that our brains do. To date there is absolutely zero evidence that the neurons in our brain have any ability to communicate at the quantum level. In fact there is no evidence that any biological system has the capability to interact at the quantum level. This is not surprising, Entanglement is a phenomenon that is extremely difficult to measure in the laboratory. It requires setting up complex highly sensitive and sophisticated electronic devises such as beam splitters and the entangled states are very susceptible to being disentangled by such measurements. That is the whole point of quantum entanglement, that such states represent multiple possible probability functions before being measured but the probability waves collapse into one real value after they are measured. The idea that a biological capability to detect such entanglements could somehow evolve seems highly improbable.

I would like to close with a more general discussion of why I think its important to rigorously examine such claims as “your brain is a quantum computer”. As I and others with a scientific background commented on Dr. Laszlo’s articles we were often maligned as people with closed minds and no imagination. I think its important to distinguish between having an open mind and an uncritical mind. I believe that I’m very open to all sorts of possibilities. I do think that the potential philosophical implications of quantum physics and string theory for example may be mind blowing and are worth serious investigation. However, there is a difference between serious investigation and arbitrary speculation. Many authors on the Huffington Post these days love to attach the word quantum to whatever their pet theory is. Quantum consciousness, quantum alternative realities, quantum brains,... These authors take advantage of the fact that quantum theory is difficult to understand to give any pet theory the appearance of scientific validity. This is pseudo-science at its worst. It does nothing to educate people on the very interesting topics of quantum theory nor on their potentially very interesting philosophical implications.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bait Car

I was on a jury a few months ago on an interesting case. I think it demonstrates a disturbing trend: the intersection between our justice system and the corporate world.

At first the case seemed open and shut. The defendant stole a high tech bait car that was set up with cameras and a “kill switch” that allowed the police to shut down the car (turn off the engine, lock it) at any time. However, as the case unfolded there were some disturbing facts. The car was parked on a busy street and left open with the key in it.

I live in San Francisco and I don’t know anyone who leaves their keys in their car, ever, no matter where they live even on quiet streets, let alone on a well traveled street. The owner of the car was not the SFPD but “KKI Productions”. At first when I heard this I assumed it was a car company or maybe one of those companies that rent cars to people in the city like City CarShare. However, as the case unfolded and I saw the several high tech hand held cameras that documented the crime it was obvious what was going on -- this was a reality TV show that was inciting crimes so they could film them.

Its funny because the last thing I wanted to do was serve on a jury this holiday week and when the DA screened jurors by asking “do you have a problem with pro-active police work” the first thing that occurred to me was “now is your chance, just say yes” but there was also a voice that said I should do the right thing, civic duty, blah, blah, blah.... At the time I never imagined that this case would be as massively “pro-active” as it turned out to be.

Unfortunately, the defendant in this case decided to be his own lawyer. When I first heard that I had visions of various Law and Order episodes where the articulate jail-house lawyer manages to give a great defense and even gives Jack McCoy a run for his money a few times. That didn’t turn out to be the case. The guy’s defense was rambling incoherent and if anything increased my belief that he was guilty. The judge made it clear in his instructions that we couldn’t consider entrapment as a defense and based on his instructions and the evidence we had no choice but to find him guilty. When we did the forewoman of the jury made it clear that some of us had major issues with the entrapment issues.

To his credit the DA attorney met with us afterwards and discussed some of the issues. He said that he realized a San Francisco jury might have issues with this kind of case. He also dispelled the picture I had of the defendant as some innocent homeless guy who wasn’t really a criminal. The guy had several previous felony convictions. The DA attorney also made a pretty convincing case saying they had very solid statistics that when they did these kind of operations car thefts go down dramatically because the word gets out about possible stings.

I was impressed with his attempts to convince us but I’m still left with a bad feeling about the ever growing intersection between the for profit section and the justice system. First it was for profit prisons now its Bait Cars who knows what’s next.