Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Scientific Self-Control

September 17, 2008

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (September 12), Brian Greene reassured us that the experiments now taking place in the Large Hadron Collider cannot produce a black hole that will swallow the earth. Apparently, Hawking has a theory that any black holes produced by the experiments will disappear almost instantly. We are reassured, that is, until we read the next-to-last paragraph where we are told “the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations.”

We remember that when the first atomic bomb experiments were carried out in New Mexico some scientists feared that they might set off a conflagration that would burn up the world. It did not happen. But the end result, nevertheless, was the creation of a bomb and the subsequent creation of a larger bomb that when duplicated sufficiently could destroy civilizations, if not all life. Then we and the Russians armed ourselves with the capability to make quite possible a general catastrophe. We still have a sufficient capability to achieve this result, but luckily the probability of a massive use of nuclear weapons has faded into the background.

Many believe that the end of civilization will be brought about by too much knowledge instead of too little. Scientists seem quite unable to control their enthusiasm for the new, and governments or private individuals seem more than willing to support their efforts. Ninety percent of our worries about the increase in the numbers and capabilities of robots, or the creation of new pathogens for warfare or to defend against the pathogens others might create, or what will come of pushing back the frontiers of physics and chemistry, or breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and how to enter into its deliberations from the outside (initially for treatment of disease perhaps) and so forth may be foolish imaginings. But I think we have developed faith enough in science to believe that a great deal that we cannot conceive of today will be conceived of in the future — and if conceptualized will eventually be rendered “useful”.

Is it not past time that the scientific community consider conditions under which they would agree to abandon further experiments in the general interest of humanity? These may be physical experiments; they may be biological experiments; they may be robotic experiments. The lead must be taken by prominent scientists involved in research in areas that threaten to move humanity into unknown and dangerous territory. Laymen simply cannot know enough to have anything very useful to say in this regard. They can only point out that there must be territory out there that it is too dangerous for science to invade. It may well be that the Hadron Collider is well within safe boundaries. In order to make this and countless similar decisions in the future, scientists need to develop criteria in physics and other fields that would allow them to decide when a dangerous boundary has been crossed.

What these criteria and limits might be are hard to forsee, and they would probably be different from one scientific field to another. The effort will involve difficult issues in the estimation of risk in relation to danger. It will be a major task, one eventually involving the international community. But it seems reasonable to ask that the effort be undertaken. Science is afire. It will solve so many of our problems. But it is also a tool that must be handled with care, and the more so, the more it progresses.

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Making Nuclear Weapon Sense

July 18, 2008

It was heartening to read in the New York Times the appreciation of the recent proposals of Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and associates (Editorial Observer, Robbins “Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons” June 30) to move decisively in the next administration toward a world without nuclear weapons. It has always been a dangerous anomaly that the United States tries to compel other nations to give up their plans to develop nuclear weapons while we have remained unwilling to make decisive steps toward freeing the world of our own nuclear weapons and the policy
alternatives they imply.

For a full version of the Nunn approach read “The Mountaintop: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, a speech he gave in Oslo on February 27 of this year.

Such an initiative would be more convincing if we could at the same time as we talk of reducing weapons also change the way in which we talk about them. We have continued to threaten the absolute destruction of opponents should they use nuclear weapons. This commitment has only been reinforced by the public statements of the political contestants in our upcoming elections when they speak of obliterating Iran should it attempt at some future point to use nuclear weapons. The United States, and perhaps the United States alone, has the capability to take the lead in abandoning this way of speaking about nuclear weapons. In many situations, particularly against countries such as Iran, we could with the conventional forces at our disposal make a decisive and effective response without the use of nuclear weapons.

Only after we renounce the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, will we be able to make a convincing case against their development by others.

Jefferson on Freedom and Independence

July 5, 2008

I have not been pleased with the efforts of the New York Times latest conservative Op-Ed writer, Bill Kristol. He has seemed to be much too predictably right. However, on June 30, he weighted in with a column on the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson that would make any liberal proud. It seems that his family does a yearly reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. And this year he intends to add Jefferson’s letter to Weightman declining an invitation to take part in the July fourth celebration written just a few days before his death.

Writing of the Declaration, Jefferson says: “May it be to the world what I believe it will be, to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Jefferson goes on to see this as the result of the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, and thus as part of the general progress of science. It reminds me of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Jefferson’s optimism was a little premature. Yet, I would argue, not wrong.

But as we read Jefferson’s comments, we are reminded that he was not thinking so much of forms of government as the human rights of freedom and self-determination. All people would eventuyqally realiza that people were equal and needed to be treated as such. One people or class should not have another telling them what to do. This brings us back to the more general question of what we mean, and what most people in the world mean by “freedom”. Thus it appears that the Afghans and Iraqis and many others would rather have independence than democracy. Democracy is a method of governing and not in itself a value for most people, perhaps not even for Americans who are well known to be reluctant participants in democratic processes.

Nuclear Response

April 24, 2008

In a recent debate, Hillary Clinton was asked what she would do about the Iranian nuclear program. Her answer was simple and direct. If the Iranians attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, we will annihilate them.

This is the theory of deterrence in a nutshell and also what is wrong with deterrence. I was speaking the other day with a person who had served on a nuclear submarine in the sixties. He said, somewhat proudly I thought, that if they had ever received a verified order to launch the weapons at the Soviet Union they would have done it. He thought that this would have led to a terrible outcome, but he could not imagine any other choice.

No one has ever gotten beyond the conundrum that it will always be a mistake to use nuclear weapons and yet the only way to prevent their use is to threaten their use. The strategists have suggested various clever ways around this problem, but for most people in most countries involved with nuclear weapons the tendency is to rely on all or nothing.

I personally do not want a person with their finger on the trigger who casually says “we will annihilate them. The them is, of course, a large number of people most of whom have played little if any role in the decision to develop or use nuclear weapons. So for an abstract goal of preventing nuclear use in the future we are set to declare that we will as a nation commit mass murder.

There are two possible partial solutions. The first is to resolve to think through the possibilities in the crisis before any nuclear weapon is launched, no matter what the provocation. The second, and more expensive, is to develop weapons and strategies that allow military success after a nuclear attack without a nuclear response. This might not be feasible in a conflict of major states, but certainly in the case of Iran we could and should develop such a strategy. (This is not to say that we should or should not be involved in war with Iran. There seem, however, are to be so many ways that we might strive to avoid this outcome.)

 

Addressing Torture

February 29, 2008

There has been a great deal of discussion lately of what is and what is not torture and whether Americans should torture in any event.

Recent discussion suggests that there are three levels to the controversy. The first is that there is an international prohibition against torture and that Americans should strive to live up to international standards that include a general prohibition of torture. The second is that there are extreme circumstances in which torture may be justified. But these must be understood on a case by case basis. This is the classical argument that we would be justified in torturing someone who had planted a bomb that is about to blow up and kill many people. If we knew that the prisoner before us could prevent the catastrophe by divulging the location of the bomb, it would make sense to use torture. Scalia has recently made this argument, and it is a good one. But it should not be confused with the government’s argument that we have a right to torture persons who may have had a hand in terrorism or planning terrorism at some later date just because it might be helpful. This generalized use of torture for possible and indefinite objectives is what got us into difficulty in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and all the other sad stories of the last few years. Senator McCain, who has experienced torture, has taken a strong stand against this casual use of torture.

It would help if those involved in the controversy would keep these three levels in mind. The first two can be defended on humanitarian grounds. The third cannot.

On the Beach: Wrong-headed Rightfulness

February 29, 2008

My wife and I just had the opportunity to see “On the Beach”, the anti-war picture issued in 1959 on the basis of a book by Neville Shute. It is the story of the Australians waiting until all would be killed by nuclear radiation that had killed everyone else in the world. I did not see it at the time it came out, because I was on the other side of the great divide over nuclear war. At the Hudson Institute about that time, I agreed with the rest of the staff that the book and picture were sheer propaganda. And they were. The idea that a nuclear war would produce a cloud of radioactivity that would over a period of months spread over the world until all humanity was destroyed misrepresented the understanding of what would happen even in the worst war. (Radiation would travel in dust clouds at much higher altitudes and much faster.) The idea that there was nothing anyone could do was also inaccurate. There were many forms of protection that even the Australians would know, and they should spend their time improving these defenses. Without minimizing the awfulness of a full-scale nuclear war, all would not be killed.

But as with many examples of exaggeration by scientists or others in such controversies, there was a good deal of truth in the confusion that would reign as to who actually started the war, and why anyone should have believed that war could be made so terrible that major war would become impossible (a notion stated very early by Winston Churchill and still widely believed today — hence our stockpiles — and presented as an actual issue in the discussion of “the doomsday machine” in Kubrick’s famous anti-war picture “Dr. Strangelove”).

A surprising number of arguments based on pseudo-science have turned out to be helpful in the long run. Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture” had a tremendous formative influence on anthropology and how we think about others, while Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” changed the thinking of a generation about sexual morality. Both books it turns out were highly inaccurate, yet they perhaps expressed “a higher truth”.

Talking of “higher truth”, at my present age I can understand much of the dialogue in “On the Beach” as a treatment of the problems that people in their seventies and eighties face. They know they will die, and it might be soon. They know that there is essentially no escaping such a relatively early death. So the varieties of ways in which the characters in the movie face their individual and collective fates takes on a real meaning for many of us — certainly not the meaning that Shute had in mind.