‘Disproving’ God

24 Jan

A tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birth anniversary

Some say that science should be absent from discussions about God is because while science concerns itself with the material, God concerns himself with the ‘spiritual’ ‘nonmaterial’ realm. But there are a number of theories of God that explicitly deal with the material realm. To that extent science has standing.

One prominent theory of the divine made with ungodly frequency is that God has a direct impact on the material well-being of humans. Here’s why the claim falls short:

Given systematic temporal and geographic variance exists in poverty, life-expectancy, etc. and given we have been able to attribute a majority of the causes for such to human action, it appears God plays only a peripheral part in the destiny of man, albeit a larger role in the destiny of women (mostly through the hands of believers). Mortality rates differ by geography. For example, the US versus Africa, Northeast US versus Southern US (maybe god likes ‘godless NE liberals’). And mortality rates vary by time—we live longer today than we did 200 years ago. The variance in mortality and life-expectancy also seems to respond to human intervention—discovery of new technologies and medicines, war, etc. So unless we believe God systematically dislikes Africans or liked people born 200 years ago less, when arguably people were more moral on some variables favored by the current fundamentalists, we have little reason to believe that God is a large force in determining life-expectancy, or mortality.

Let’s assume for devil’s sake that God is a confounding variable, which is true in at least one way—he is alleged to work in mysterious ways, i.e. God determines both temporal, geographic, racial and other kinds of variance in distribution of poverty, the human action to which it is causally attributed, and life-expectancy. But that version of God conflicts with our theories about human action (say greed) and our theories about God, who ought not to reward people motivated by such things as greed. But then punishment can come in the afterlife – via hell, where an ever larger number of people are being systematically tortured through a great expense of energy, and in a manner that will leave the Bush administration officials chagrined. Even if we imagine that theories of after-life action are true, their impact on the material world is limited to the extent people believe in the threat of punishment. To that extent, God is an instrumental identity for achieving some version of morality.

Another challenge to the presence of God comes from the probabilistic nature of our causal models. Theories about God ought to be perfect (explain about 100% of the variance) while theories of social action can be probabilistic. To ascribe probabilistic thinking and action to God would significantly conflict with theories of God, though one can imagine that he sets the mean, and will cause the error term. A starker version of the same would be that God allows free will, and to that degree that he allows for it and the world is shaped by free will, and God is immaterial to bettering social condition. Another reason to discount challenge to God theory can be the following – we just don’t know the generating mechanism (or life/death) and probabilistic conditioning seems to come from fitting known world models onto data generated by God model, which is by the way synergistic enough with the world model (more poverty = earlier death) to be disturbing.

One way to look at the argument presented here is that God may exist, but s/he/it isn’t particularly strong. And if strength/omnipotence is taken to be a fundamental descriptive attitude of the object (God), it is likely that the object doesn’t exist as well. The counterargument to the above would perhaps need to factor in differing conceptions about the object and its power. For example, one may say that s/he/it is doing all it can to reduce evil to its lowest form – and that is indeed the present condition. Perhaps then more minimally – since he is already doing all he can and rest depends on us – we can argue that God isn’t a particularly useful intervention for changing one’s situation in the world.

Understanding Delhi and the Delhi Walla

8 Jan

The article was written for The Delhi Walla

The Delhi Walla is a journalist’s blog, albeit without the drama and urgency with which journalism and journalists are often associated with today. The writing on the blog represents that prior tradition among journalists which was about subtle observation, gentle humor, as evinced in journalists’ travelogues, and in shows like BBC’s “From our own correspondent.”

The blog is a significant achievement. More so because reporting on cities is generally skillfully and purposefully bankrupt, formulaic and inane, an orgy of crummy descriptions of pointless people, and events, and soulless corporate jingles about places to eat, and entertain, infested almost always with a touch too colorful poorly shot photos.

With an eclectic choice of topics, a choice that is many a times dictated by the city rather than by an urge to puppeteer description in grips of pincers of prejudice, with gentle and subtle humor, Mayank shines a weak but almost always pleasant humanistic light on the myriad facets of Delhi, and the occupations, preoccupations, habits, of its residents. The wonderful aspect of the blog is that it catalogs ‘real life,’ an all too absent commodity in newspapers, be it then a story about the need to find a second home in a city with cramped homes that provide all too little privacy, the rather oddly structured stories on colonies (as they are called in Delhi), or the succession of charming articles on bookstores, and their proprietors. Perhaps seen hence, it is a writer’s blog. And that is probably a more accurate description of the sensibility of the blog, and the author, and explains the void comparisons to newspapers that I make above.

One can try to understand things of interest by disinterring things, breaking them apart skillfully, through analysis and connecting those parts into an explanation or simply description conjoined by some connective tissue. It is a bit like looking at white light through a prism, with colored rainbow being the distillate. Of course, more often we just describe a part of one color, and the rest is at best in the penumbra. Analysis is generally purposive and demands specificity. It struggles to contain, and cast, and organize, and too often the aim is to achieve that aha! moment. For all these reasons, the enterprise is often fraught with problems of myopia, and of force.

Another feature of the analytical method is the method of writing – it is writing through contestation. For example, the account that I provide here is often times a ‘negative’ account — describing what this blog isn’t, rather than simply focusing on what it is. The method may be insightful if the analysis has legs, but it is seldom enjoyable.

The Delhi Walla chooses differently; he observes, describes, narrates, engages in reverie, and gently analyzes. He does it with great modesty and some charm. His method of understanding isn’t analytic introspection, but subtle observation that produces that warm flush of vague but liberalist accepting, even embracing, empathy, and exultation in the shared existence. It is akin to the understanding and exultation one feels while standing on the roof of the house on a pleasant summer evening, and looking over the gullis and Mohalla.

Delhi is an easy city to caricature. It is bleak, dirty, loud, and crowded. And it is certainly all that. But the reality is simultaneously substantially more mundane and textured. Likewise, people sometimes mistakenly make the inferential leap from bleak surroundings to bleak lives; all too often bleak surroundings are peripheral to the fuller psychological lives lived among acquaintances, friends, relations, and more.

Delhi is a city that carries the hopes and aspirations of people living in it, the location of deaths, marriages, jobs, cars, monuments, history, politics, money, and more. One can take respite, if so is needed, in the beauty of some of its monuments, sometimes in just its familiarity, in its traditions and landmarks, even in its oppressive heat, as Mayank occasionally does, food, conversation, and intimacy of friends and family, among other things.

The Delhi Walla
The Delhi Walla is an eclectic account of Delhi. It is an ode to the passions of Delhi Walla — the Muslim heritage of Delhi, books, Arundhati Roy, and gay life in the city. It is an account of his questions, and more interestingly a live account of an unfailingly interesting life.

In the Middle of Nowhere

12 Sep

Given that wealth is hard to measure, the middle class has often been defined in terms of income. Gary Burtless defines it as families earning anywhere between half of median income ($24,000) to twice as much ($96,000). Frank Levy, based on Census data for families in their prime earning years, pegs that range between $30,000 and $90,000. This seems much too wide a ‘middle’ to be meaningful. These incomes likely reflect very different lifestyles and options. But the definition is slippier still. The World Bank defines the middle class as people making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

The middle-class has been described as a rentier class with no social basis but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist system, with the top .01% gaining significantly more than the next .09%, who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric, and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose hands success seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense-making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism — it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. The successful are caught in the need for ascribing their success to their own ingenuity and hard work.

The moralism of middle class can be better understood if we look to its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the middle-class in the Victorian era was its extreme moralism — railing against the corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rabbits poor — and trying to define meritocracy as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society — inclusive yet elusive — inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Media and the Middle Class: Example of India

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way – especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade – as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong-based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels — including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself – at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment.

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and the new generation that took reigns of that media – the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intentions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till the early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers trod lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured foreign channels carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign-bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of native media led by clawing young brigade. The recruits to the media industry – young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of middle-class discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with a shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading Times of India with its Leisure sections (something which was started by Washington Post Style Section in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a cause of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: Connaught Place

14 Jul

The romance of a Delhi summer can be savored by conjuring up just one image: the vast, cool corridors of Connaught Place.

The Raj-era building, built between 1928 and 1934 though formally opened in 1931, was based on the designs of World War I veteran Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect to the Public Works Department. Russell had worked in India before the War as an assistant to the famous John Begg, who along with George Wittet is generally credited with developing the Indo-Saracenic style. Thankfully, due to exigency or choice, none of Begg’s influence invaded Russell’s design aesthetic, which was dominated by the understated yet stately stucco neo-classical style popularized by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Russell’s aesthetic, however, did carry distinct echoes of Italian architecture- The opulent gracefully executed Tuscan loggias on both on both levels (the upper-level structures have been increasingly converted into offices) being the defining features of Connaught Place.

Growing up in the eighties, Connaught Place, with its massive arcaded colonnades, circular columnar geometry which was never oppressive, upscale if slightly frumpy shops, as opposed to upscale shops now which have interior designs that are almost always preternaturally youthful, with humming air conditioners, when air conditioners were a rarity, was a source of wonder and awe. It was also the only place where one saw foreigners in Delhi. They, almost always in their sunglasses and shorts, walking unhurriedly yet purposefully.

Going to Connaught Place meant going through India Gate and parts of Lutyens Delhi. As we neared India gate, the temperature dropped a few degrees as bus gathered pace and air shed its molten edge in the leafy embrace of trees, and over the grassy expanse of the maidans. Suddenly the furrowed brow of the bus passengers relaxed as we entered the non-gridlocked, beautiful, stately, tree-lined Delhi, and a near bonhomie was restored.

Getting down at Barakhamba Road, I remember always taking a few seconds to take in the faint yet pleasant excitement of being in this glorious commercial hub, feeling happy, and almost dreamily becoming aware of the pleasant rush of traffic and how the car horns sounded different — more sonorous, here. However, the two things that I remember most about going to Connaught Place are the shoe shops and Nirula’s. If mom wanted a sandal, it had to be from the Liberty shop in Connaught Place, and the Bata shop there was considered absolutely irreplaceable for men’s shoes. The air-conditioned Nirula’s with its exotic pizzas, which never tasted good but were ravenously consumed, and burgers, and ice-creams was heaven, albeit a heaven in which the feet and heart were as timorous as excitement complete.

On the way back home at night, happy with the day, the relatively empty bus with its dull yellow light seemed positively romantic. As we passed the ice-cream wallahs with their fluorescent lights covered in colored cellophane, and the strolling families, near India gate, the adventure was complete.

Why Obama?

17 Jan

Chaste and I on why Obama is the better candidate for the Democratic primary.

The system of democracy that we have been assigned to only allows us to make comparative judgments between candidates standing for election. We do not get to vote for “ideal” candidates but merely the best among the ones who are running. At this stage, Democratic partisans and independents (in some states) get to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One of these candidates will eventually represent the Democratic Party in November against a Republican candidate.

The past eight years in this country have been an unmitigated disaster – they have not only been financially ruinous (an average of about $12,000 of debt has been added to the already burdened back of an average American, the dollar has plummeted), they have also proven to be catastrophic for America’s reputation and caused grievous harm on vitally important issues like climate change. All of the major Republican candidates running today – while careful in distancing themselves from Bush – espouse positions that are virtually indistinguishable from that of Bush. There is little doubt in my mind that if we elect another Republican to the White House, we are going to see a rehash of the policies that have proven to be so ruinous. So for all who are concerned about having another Republican in White House come January 2008, it is important to pay attention to electability.

As Frank Rich points out in his column for the NY Times, Republicans are all set to dig up the unending mounds of dirt that emerged from the White House under Clinton Era. The Clinton closet hides more than Lewinsky’s stained blue dress; it also contains sodden episodes like the Whitewater kickbacks, the White House as a guest house for donors, pardoning of Marc Rich, the Clinton library donation from the Saudis, among many others. More than that, Hillary is widely seen (justly or unjustly) as a “divisive” candidate unlikely to win any converts among independents. There is now empirical evidence from the four contests and national opinion polls that that is indeed true, as Obama has handily won amongst independents in each of the contests and leads amongst independents nationwide.

Let me move next to discussing their stances on the Iraq war –a core issue for a lot of Americans not only for its price tag, estimated at over $2 trillion by Columbia and Harvard professors, but also for the active disinformation campaign by the administration and the complicity of press and “opposition” leaders.

Senator Obama had the judgment and the courage to call the Iraq war correctly from the beginning. This was no happenstance or knee-jerk response. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he had said in 2002. His argument was based not only on the insultingly egregious evidence presented for going to war but also steeped in pragmatism – he accurately predicted that American troops won’t be greeted with flowers in Iraq. His sound judgment is in part the product of his abiding interest in foreign policy: his major at Columbia was International Relations. It is also due in part to his life experiences: as a boy with a Kenyan father and later an Indonesian stepfather, who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii. Fareed Zakaria, a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and currently Editor of Newsweek International, said that Senator Obama is the only candidate who knows “what it means not to be an American”, an understanding critical to a successful foreign policy in our time. Senator Obama is an admirer of the foreign policy of President Truman who combined the establishment of NATO with the Marshall Plan, and of President Kennedy who combined a military buildup with the establishment of the Peace Corps. He wants to make Foreign Aid a strong component of American foreign policy to establish American military and moral leadership. He is currently the only candidate running for office who is open to talking to Iran without any preconditions.

Senator Obama also has a clear grasp of economic policies. Recently, a Washington Post writer decided to grade all the candidates based on the stimulus packages they proposed to address the recent economic downturn. As the candidates put together these responses relatively quickly, they accurately indicate the quality of the candidates’ understanding of the economy. Senator Obama topped with an A-, Senator Edwards and President Bush had a B-, and Senator Clinton had a C+; the best grade for a Republican candidate was a D+. The article is a very good read so I would recommend that you read it in full.

Senator Obama gives us grounds for trusting his integrity because of his record of putting his money where his mouth is. After graduating from Columbia, he worked for several years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, not the regulation one year that most law school applicants work to beef up their resume. After graduating Magna cum Laude from Harvard law, he chose to be a civil rights lawyer rather than making millions as a corporate lawyer.

Senator Obama also has a record of bringing people together to get things done. He has done this at least since his days at Harvard Law when he emerged as the consensus candidate as the president of the Harvard Law Review after bitter acrimony between ideological factions (no mean feat as law students like their own opinions very much, and have nothing to lose from being obdurate). In the U.S. Senate, he has worked with respected Republicans like Senator Lugar over the control of conventional weapons like hand-held anti-aircraft missiles and land mines, as well as with Republican ideologues like Senator Coburn over corporate transparency legislation.

Senator Obama’s main opponent, Senator Clinton often offers up her experience as the reason for preferring her. While Senator Clinton was very competent and successful in her long career as a corporate lawyer, her career in public life has unfortunately been marked by incompetence. Her mishandling of Healthcare reform not only resulted in the Republican landslide of 1994 that swept away strong Democratic majorities in Congress; it put off any serious consideration of Healthcare reform for more than a decade.

If part of the debacle of her Healthcare effort may be attributed to political inexperience, no such excuse exists for her vote to authorize the war on Iraq in 2002. At the same time, Senator Clinton also voted against the Levin amendment, which would have required Mr. Bush to come to Congress for war authorization if he failed to obtain a U.N. resolution. The two votes combined make it clear that Senator Clinton’s authorization for the war on Iraq was unequivocal and not conditional on exhaustive diplomacy as she would have us believe. Senator Clinton had access to the entire National Intelligence Estimate. The full report had considerable reservations about the WMD claims spun by the Bush administration. To date, she has consistently refused to say whether she did or did not read the full report, instead maintaining only that she was briefed on the report. Failure to read the report in an important matter like war would suggest incompetence and a lack of seriousness; her vote after reading the report would suggest that she attached more importance to the spin of the Bush administration and TV Pundits than to the assessments of career civil servants even in important matters like war. (NY Times, Hillary on War)

To err may be human, but not to learn from one’s mistakes is incompetence. Senator Clinton has refused to acknowledge that she even made a mistake in her war authorization vote, which suggests a temperament on which experience is wasted. An instance of this was her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution in 2007, which urged the Bush administration to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (numbering about 120,000) a “terrorist” entity. Many saw this resolution as the basis for a possible invasion of Iran in the future. Senator Clinton claimed that her vote would help negotiations with Iran. Yet calling a major state agency “terrorist,” will only make it difficult for the Iranians to compromise, and the “terrorist” label would increase domestic U.S. pressure against meaningful negotiations with Iran. Senator Clinton’s use of such flawed logic as the basis for a possible war creates grave doubts about the quality of her thinking. Fortunately, The Bush administration adopted a much more judicious and restrained approach than that advocated by Senator Clinton and declared only a small subset of the Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist” entity. The tension was further defused recently when the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program for the past few years. It however very powerfully brings into question Senator Clinton’s judgment.

Senator Clinton has chosen to run a divisive campaign making liberal use of the gender and race cards. She has recruited surrogates including her own husband to launch a vitriolic campaign, which has only divided the Democratic Party. These are the actions of a candidate who is in ONLY to win. Senator Clinton was already a polarizing influence in the nation as a whole (though this is not entirely her fault). Her calculated dividing of the Democratic Party bodes ill for her chances in November if she is the candidate, and for passing her agenda if she becomes President.

The foregoing shows that when it comes to the qualities we seek in a president, such as soundness of judgment, clarity of understanding, quality of thought, and integrity, Senator Obama is by far the better candidate. He has a much clearer understanding of both foreign policy and of the economy. The domestic programs of all three Democratic candidates are substantially comparable. Senator Obama’s proven record of uniting people and working across the aisle gives him a much better chance of turning his program into legislation.

For all these reasons, I urge you to vote for Senator Obama in the primary on Feb 5.


Get Involved

On February 5th 22 states go head to head in contests that will essentially decide the Democratic candidate. If you support Obama’s candidacy, and would like to get involved, please go to Barackobama.com to learn more about how you can contribute. You can donate towards the campaign by clicking here.

Reducing the Nuclear Threat by Reducing Local Threat Perceptions

12 Jan

The drive to acquire nuclear weapons is thought to stem largely from local threat perceptions. The point becomes all the more clear when we take stock of the countries where the nuclear weapons activity is limited to.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) nuclear weapons program initially started as a response to the not-so-veiled nuclear threat from Truman during the Korean War. During a press conference on November 30, 1950, Truman acknowledged that using the nuclear bomb was part of the contingency planning. (Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A History, multiple other sources) and during 1951 active hints – moving Mark IV nuclear capsules – were dropped to convey that the usage was imminent. Beyond 1953, US’s continued presence in the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan is seen as a key reason as to why North Korea assiduously followed its nuclear program. Iran’s drive for acquisition of Nuclear Weapons can be similarly understood as a response to guard against the US threat.

It is, however, hard to imagine what particular use the smallish stockpile of nuclear weapons would be to DPRK. Any nuclear escalation by it will surely be met by an ‘overwhelming’ US response. Simply put, there is no deterrent against a super-power. Except for perhaps an alliance with another superpower. (I will come to this point later.) However, nuclear weapons provide a country with the capability of making an assault on it costly for the superpower by attacks on its key allies (Japan and South Korea). So while North Korea is held in check by the incredible US military power, the US, in turn, is held in check (to some degree) through North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on its allies. The same goes for Iran, which feels vulnerable to unprovoked US attack, given its inability to inflict damage on its ally (Israel) in the region.

Strategy toward DPRK until now

The strategy to contain DPRK nuclear weapons program has consisted of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the multilateral ‘six-party’ agreement signed in 2007, and a multitude of covert Sun Tzuian attempts to effect regime change. All these strategies have ended at different levels of failure.

The Agreed Framework, which required the DPRK to “dismantle its nuclear facilities and dispose of all its weapons-grade plutonium, only temporarily interrupted production – the fuel rods, with weapons-grade plutonium embedded in them, were stored in a pool awaiting reprocessing, and never removed from North Korea – as DPRK simply re-prioritized its efforts to construction of delivery systems. The efforts culminated in the successful August 1998 Taepo Dong I missile test. DPRK, as AQ Khan confirmed in 2003, also developed an indigenous uranium enrichment capability in the intervening years. In a three week period in Dec 2002/Jan 2003, Kim Jong Il expelled all international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three months later the DPRK acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, and eventually tested one in Oct 2006.

After years of neglect, Six-Party Talks held in February 2007 resulted in an agreement that called for North Korea to shut down its 5 MW (e) graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon by 14 April 2007. Almost immediately, North Korea refused to comply with the terms of this agreement and the Yongbyon reactor continued operation for more than two months beyond the mutually agreed upon deadline. On 18 July 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency finally confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down. Since that time, “disablement” has continued. However, more recently on 26 December 2007, Hyon Hak Pong, vice director-general of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, stated the disablement process will be delayed, in a statement reminiscent of the process of repeated delays practices following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The 13th February agreement, which was signed on the precondition that US would release the $25 million dollars frozen by Washington at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which had allegedly helped the DPRK illegally launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills, is a much weaker agreement than 1994 one. The 13th February agreement avoids the term dismantling and uses the more ambiguous terms “abandonment” and “disablement”, which allows the DPRK to essentially leave its entire nuclear infrastructure intact. Immediately following its signing, the DPRK state-run news agency announced that the offer of aid equivalent to 1M tonnes of fuel oil was made in connection with North Korea’s “temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities.”

Reasons for failure

While the 13th February agreement holds the six-parties – China, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the U.S. – accountable, each has different motives and capabilities of performing the duty. For instance, while China may admonish DPRK publicly – as it did when DPRK fired ballistic missiles on the 4th of July and then conducted a nuclear test on 09 October – it has little incentive to be a truly accountable. After all, the nuclear threat from NK concerns the US much more than it does China. Similarly, Russia has little incentive to police North Korean compliance. Japan and the US have very little leverage with North Korea due to non-existent trade links, that make any possibility of tangible economic threat moot, and South Korea seems disinclined. North Korea, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the security guarantee to comfortably forgo its nuclear program which makes it’s giving up of nuclear capability unlikely.

Strategy for success

Putting NK’s security needs at the heart of the debate is essential to gain a better understanding of how to craft a more sustainable agreement for North Korea. To gain a better understanding of its security needs, I will briefly survey the threat posed by Japan/US combine.

The US has over the past many years led the most cavalier foreign policy in the world. The policy has led to numerous regime changes, more failed regime changes, countless assassinations, and support of terror groups. In East Asia, US maintains a significant military presence, has bi-lateral security agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – and as co-guarantor of their security flexes muscle at each of their expressed security worries – and regularly issues damning rhetoric like ‘axis of evil’. While US’s capability to launch an attack in East Asia has been severely compromised due to the ongoing conflagration in Iraq, it nonetheless remains a potent and continuous threat to North Korea.

While Japan has a strictly ‘pacifist’ constitution, it hasn’t stopped it from building a very sophisticated and well armed “self-defense force”. Similar kind of ambiguity underpins its nuclear strategy. While Japan under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, promulgated the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” on 05 February 1968 and has been a tireless promoter of non-proliferation at a variety of international venues, it also has one of the largest stockpiles of enriched plutonium in the world – estimated at over 46 tons. While the majority of its plutonium is in storage in France and the UK, an estimated 5.7 tones (still enough to build in excess of a thousand of nuclear weapons) exists within Japan. In addition, Japan currently possesses approximately 3 tons of “near” (i.e. roughly 90% Pu-239, 7% Pu-240, 3% Pu-241) Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu), and could immediately begin production of larger quantities of WGPu and Weapons Grade Uranium (WGU) for more reliable and higher yielding warheads. It also has potent delivery vehicles in the form of H-2 (ICBM capable of carrying a 4,000 kg payload over 15,000 km), and M-3SII (IRBM capable of carrying a 500 kg payload approximately 4,000 km). In addition, Japan possesses a robust Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (TBMD) system which forms the centerpiece of “deterrence by denial” strategy. Since 2002, many high-level Japanese officials have openly discussed the possibility of Japan pursuing an indigenousness nuclear capability. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara have bluntly called for “revising” the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Kim Jong Il is primarily interested in maintaining himself as North Korea’s Dear Leader. US rhetoric about democratization and omnipresent military threat jeopardize that. A “non-use of force” agreement between the US, South Korea, and the DPRK would go a long way in ameliorating North Korea’s concerns but still won’t remove all doubts from either side. Minus the trust in such a treaty, all things go back to some version of the status quo. A better idea would be to rope in China and ask it to sign a protection deal with North Korea styled on US Taiwan agreements. Of course, China’s interest in roping in North Korea is debatable given that a nuclear North Korea is a concern for the US and not China. China, however, can be enticed by incentives. This kind of a deal would mean sacrificing some of the military supremacy that the US has enjoyed in East Asia but in the longer term, it would lead to a safer region for its allies.

Threats from non-state actors and other contingencies

Since “Chicago Pile One” – the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – in 1942, a total of 9 Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have emerged. In addition to the 9 current NWS, Japan possesses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons on a quick notice. Two other countries, Libya and South Africa have come forth and disbanded their nuclear weapons programs.

However, the critical nuclear threat is now thought to come from non-state actors. None of the 9 NWS can provide an exact accounting of the amount of Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) they possess. In Russia alone, only 64% of the basic Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) rapid upgrades (i.e. bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors) have been completed, and even fewer “comprehensive security and accounting upgrades specifically designed for securing each facility and its stored material(s), have been completed. More ominously, cases of trafficking of nuclear materials are becoming more commonplace. The most recent case came on 01 February 2006 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when North Ossetia resident and Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer. This uranium was obtained from the nuclear material storage facility in Novosibirsk, Siberia; the same facility suspected to be the source of another 2003 nuclear material trafficking case which involved the seizure of 170 grams of HEU. Also in 2003, a court case in Russia revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapons-grade plutonium for sale to an unidentified foreign client.

There is legitimate concern about non-state actors using nuclear weapons but using them would mean such an unacceptable escalation that would surely jeopardize the larger aims of whatever organization. But non-state actors are much less rational than nation states and diffuse organizations may mean that the ability to conclusively hit back at them is limited at best. The other concern is that neutralizing the organization may not neutralize the threat of the ideology that the organization may purport. On the positive side, however, – non-state actors often times have depended on explicit nation state funding. As long as the nuclear material is traceable to its source – something which isotopic analysis can do now – the organization and the state actors funding it can be implicated providing each state actor with powerful incentive to control such activity by the organization they fund or support.


The US must embark on a much saner foreign policy course and tone down its rhetoric so as to ameliorate the security worries that countries feel. The other related action would be to see to it that countries like North Korea get their security guarantees from major powers to which they are close to. Little recourse exists as to dealing with non-state actors except strengthening state actors – including providing help in sealing nuclear materials and instituting a strengthened security program. It is important to keep in mind that the chance of a nuclear attack is minuscule and expenditure on security should be commensurate to it.

Use of nuclear weapons has been stigmatized in the international arena to such a degree that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort for state actors, and likely for non-state actors too. The chance of usage of nuclear weapons hence remains minuscule and it is debatable whether it is worth focusing large amounts of resources on removing them from regimes with limited capacity to produce or use them. However, nuclear weapons do have strategic consequences (e.g. deterrence) on the ability of US to exercise power. The prominent worry is that with deterrence countries could feel emboldened to support terrorism. In addition, given the predicted cascading effect of nuclear weapons-neighboring countries feel threatened by nuclear neighbors and then their neighbors feel threatened etc. – strategic consequences can be immense. The course of action that I prescribe above focuses on mitigating security threat of countries that are intent on building nuclear weapons. But the strategy comes with consequences. Ameliorating threat perceptions of North Korea may also imply giving up the chance of ever really threatening North Korea. And therein lays the bargain and a key dilemma. You can have a nuclear-armed country with deterrence that successfully deters your attacks or be in a treaty with you or another major power which also effectively provides deterrence to it. There are two key advantages to the latter strategy – preventing the cascade effect, and limiting the threat of proliferation. The significant downside to both strategies is limiting the ability to mount punitive action. Given that alternative sanctioning mechanisms like levying economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective, very little edge ways space is available to counteract support for hostile entities except perhaps mounting negotiations – which may not quite work minus the threat of the stick.

It is perhaps best to look at the issue as to how much harder does the presence of nuclear weapons make the launching of punitive action in face of hostile activities. The fact of the matter is that propensity for mounting war as punitive action – even without nuclear deterrence – remains very low given the political and economic costs of war. So in the small minority of cases – really Iran and North Korea – presence of nuclear weapons may make US attack a little less likely from the already low number but given the overwhelming military superiority that the US enjoys – not terribly less likely than non-nuclear scenario.

Seen hence, nuclear weapons possession can be seen as a marginal gain for the countries but nothing which will decisively tilt the power equation.

Akshardham: “Spiritual Theme Park”

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

Shining India: The Marvel of Marble

26 Sep

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid-30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course, the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers, a majority of the total passengers, belong to the super elite for whom pretending patience in front of fellow elites is important and also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia—skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreigners in our line wondered. I wondered too.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

The Role of Argument in Natural Sciences, Law, and Social Sciences

20 Aug

The following article has been written by Chaste, who has contributed to this blog before.

I will assume for the purposes of this piece that argument is the dominant form of writing in academia. This is also true of public discourse, but this piece will limit itself to academic writing, and more specifically to writing in the social sciences. If academia aims to produce worthwhile knowledge then the argument is the form that mediates our view of the object studied, and academia is the structure that mediates the production of the specific types of knowledge.

Mediating forms are layers of abstraction that can help understanding. They define a process for understanding that prevents distortion due to visceral or other perceptions. Yet as Adorno warns us, forms of viewing and the structures that regulate those forms can limit our understanding of the object studied. To take a simple instance, researcher-teachers argue a position to get published, and the success of such arguments in staking out and establishing a specific position within the field gets them promoted. Yet we expect researcher-teachers to conduct independent research, and train students to think with an open mind and to acquire comprehensive knowledge in a field. We must be wary lest the form of the argument and the structure of academia advance original/individualistic positions at the expense of responsible scholarship. We must also worry about the lure of political power for academics. Politics desires simple, narrow and sharply defined positions, whether for political posturing or for public programs. Succumbing to this lure can only exacerbate the effects of argument on knowledge.

Nature of Argument and its Role in Academia

I will quickly lay out the nature of the argument as used in academia. The argument typically takes the form of a declared purpose, followed by a description of the theoretical method, which the researcher will use for his analysis. It then applies this method to the selected data to come up with a conclusion that mirrors the declared aim. The primary critique of this form of argument uses a simple piece of reasoning. Applying a theoretical method to a selection of data should always produce the same result and conclusion. Therefore if “reasonable” (sic) minds disagree, this can only be because their aim/conclusion has pre-determined their choice of theoretical method and/or their selection of data.

The primary virtue of argument is its clarity. This is due to two qualities: consistency and discreteness. Yet consistency provides much greater explanatory power when we combine it with complexity than when we use it to support a single point. The argument often achieves discreteness by excluding other perspectives. We can gain greater explanatory power by defining relations between disparate issues perspectives, rather than by limiting them. “Cohere” is useful as it suggests both cohesion and coherence.

The popularity of the argument is doubtless because it mimics similar forms in science and law. Despite its recent success, scientific research is hardly a model of philosophical rigor. Recall the search for the “gay gene,” where scientists confused the biological phenomenon of sexual urge with the likely social phenomenon of sexual attractiveness. Or witness the ongoing fiasco about the continuous upward revision of global warming estimates because scientists had missed such obvious factors as the methane release from a permafrost melt, or missed the systematic differences caused by changes in methods for measuring temperature over the past century. Most scientific research is simple because it deals in the existence of facts. Reporting the properties of an element at 1000c has much scientific value. On the other hand, reporting my thoughts at any given moment has little value even though it may be an appropriate object of study for psychology or political science. Most scientific research does not involve speculative selection and aggregation of data. When it does, as in astronomy, public health, and climatology, its conclusions are no more reliable than those in the social sciences. “Speculative” is crucial when dealing with a seemingly infinite number of variables and infinite data. It underlines the necessity of an a priori judgment when faced with infinite variables and data. The analysis then turns into a test of the speculative judgment. It is at this point that ethics become crucial in such research. The researcher can choose his theoretical methods and select his data to prejudge the outcome in favor of the a priori judgment. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to be ethical. He could either come up with a new hypothesis and test it, or he could simply state the conclusion supported by the most appropriate selection of data and choice of methods.

The argument also mimics the dominant form used by law. However, the legal context is also quite different from that in social science research. It is true that lawyers select and even slant the data. However, the data is very limited. Again, the lawyer has no choice in the theoretical methods. Every legal point in dispute has a clearly established set of legal elements, which the lawyer must prove. It is this systematic exhaustion of every relevant legal element that makes legal briefs both thorough and thoroughly tedious. In academic arguments, exhaustive lists of theoretical methods are not possible. The infinite data and variables provide infinite scope for cherry-picking: the only criterion is that the method or data support the argument. Cross-disciplinary studies exacerbate these dangers. They make it easier to ignore any agreement in a discipline about the criteria for selecting relevant data, or about the best methods to analyze a particular type o data. In this instance, the proliferation of theoretical methods simply provides even more tools to derive a conclusion of one’s choosing. An extreme case of this phenomenon is that of the cross-disciplinary case study, which narrows the selection of data to a single instance, providing fertile ground for any conclusion whatever.

I do not suggest that such lax cross-disciplinary studies or case studies do not have any value. Their value is that of interpretive works and is similar to the value of literary works. Literary works sometimes reveal networks of meaning that cannot b openly discussed in their time. Cross-disciplinary case studies can straddle the boundary between what can and cannot be viably discussed in academia. As such, they can provoke thought and provide insights and skeletal structure for further analysis. An excellent work of this kind is Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which weaves together insightful arguments and moving, thought-provoking life experiences on various issues.

Another critical difference is that the law uses argument within an adversarial context. There is no counterpart in academic writing wherein a counter-argument immediately follows the argument. In this sense, an academic piece resembles an ex parte hearing in which the lawyer is required to disclose all facts favorable to the absent opponent. No such requirement exists in academic writing.

When used in the unsuitable academic context, the primary disadvantage of an argument is that it induces a loss of perspective by giving disproportionate emphasis to the position argued for. To a reader without extensive knowledge of the field, it is not possible to infer anything about the validity or worth of any claims. Unless the argument is part of a conversation, the only appropriate response is skepticism and a reserving of judgment. Judged by the credibility of its claims, the argument becomes worthless except as a data point in a survey or as part of a meta-reading.

Reforming the Argument

I will briefly examine a few alternatives to the argument as typically practiced. The first option is to abandon the argument in favor of a meditation that densely weaves together patterns of related insights. Meditation need not imply any loss of evidentiary or logical rigor, merely a flexible structure. The form of the meditation has several advantages. It dramatically reduces the problem of disproportionate emphasis on the one position. The substantive part of most arguments is less than 20% of their length. The rest is low-value elaboration masquerading as thoroughness. The more flexible structure of the meditation will encourage authors to replace the low-value elaboration with related information/insights. The weaving of patterns will become a pedagogical exercise, which will train the reader to map and relate the data in the field.

Meditation may be the ideal form; its practice is very likely to be something else. Authors will be tempted to spawn patchworks of recycled insights. This will make the editor’s job both time consuming and difficult.

Another solution involves a minor modification of the form of the argument. Editors can insist that the articles be self-aware: that they demonstrate how different conclusions can be drawn with different selections of data or variables and different choices of theoretical methods. This is the least resource-intensive of my three solutions. However, it runs the risk that the author will demonstrate only those alternatives that support rather than undermine his conclusion.

The most pragmatic solution is to have peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, most “peer reviewed” journals are a misnomer since they are only peer approved. The journals should publish the peer reviews, and allow the author to respond to the reviews. The reviews themselves should be an engagement with the material, and not merely indicate the quality of the piece. The editors must choose reviewers from different methodological expertise and disciplinary backgrounds (where that is appropriate). This will deter the author from making expedient selections of data and of theoretical methods and traditions. It will also give the reader an adequate perspective on the author’s argument. The interactive nature of the reviews and response will have pedagogical value not only for the reader but also for the author and the reviewers. It will enable the author and reviewers to possibly expand on the conversation outside the journal, and provide networking-related scholarly and career benefits. The article will come with a relatively objective assessment of its worth, which will help both readers and anyone else who may be interested in evaluating the work of the author. The editors should keep the approval process separate from the review process, and keep the submissions to reviewers anonymous. The editors should take care that the reviews not mimic the journalistic practice of seeking input from hacks representing stereotypes of established positions. However, this is achieved relatively easily in academia.

Peer review is reduced to peer approval in the sciences because unlike the social sciences, scientific research often deals in results rather than conclusions, and because the researcher is the only person with direct access to the results. Therefore, peers in sciences are largely concerned with fraudulent claims of results rather than with the validity of conclusions. In social sciences, the data is often public, and the value of the article lies primarily in the validity of the conclusions. Peer review will help determine this validity. It will also encourage responsible scholarship from authors. Not only will every article have to survive a more rigorous engagement; this engagement will be invigorating for all. Above all, it is achievable in practice because it does not impose unacceptable burdens on editors.