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Outlawing War

Why “outcasting” works better than violence

Scientific American (cover)

After binge-watching the 18-hour PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was left emotionally emptied and ethically exhausted from seeing politicians in the throes of deception, self-deception and the sunk-cost bias that resulted in a body count totaling more than three million dead North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, along with more than 58,000 American troops. With historical perspective, it is now evident to all but delusional ideologues that the war was an utter waste of human lives, economic resources, political capital and moral reserves. By the end, I concluded that war should be outlawed.

In point of fact, war was outlawed … in 1928. Say what?

In their history of how this happened, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Yale University legal scholars Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro begin with the contorted legal machinations of lawyers, legislators and politicians in the 17th century that made war, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Those means included a license to kill other people, take their stuff and occupy their land. Legally. How?

In 1625 the renowned Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius penned a hundreds-page-long treatise originating with an earlier, similarly long legal justification for his country’s capture of the Portuguese merchant ship Santa Catarina when those two countries were in conflict over trading routes. In short, The Law of War and Peace argued that if individuals have rights that can be defended through courts, then nations have rights that can be defended through war because there was no world court. (continue reading…)

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Giving the Devil His Due

Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

This article appeared in the Journal of Criminal Justice in May 2017.

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman (Shermer & Grobman, 2000). Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are “anti-hate” statutes and laws against spreading “false news” that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.” The “Race Relations Act” in Great Britain forbids racially charged speech “not only when it is likely to lead to violence, but generally, on the grounds that members of minority races should be protected from racial insults.” Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, and Sweden have all passed similar laws (Douglas, 1996). In 1989 the New South Wales parliament in Australia passed the “Anti-Discrimination Act” that includes these chilling passages, Orwellian in their implications: (continue reading…)

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When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs

Then ideology needs to give way
magazine cover

Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn’t fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in. (continue reading…)

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Paleolithic Politics

Has there ever been a time when the political process has been so bipartisan and divisive? Yes, actually, one has only to recall the rancorousness of the Bush-Gore or Bush-Kerry campaigns, harken back to the acrimonious campaigns of Nixon or Johnson, read historical accounts of the political carnage of both pre- and post-Civil War elections, or watch HBO’s John Adams series to relive in full period costuming the bipartite bitterness between the parties of Adams and Jefferson to realize just how myopic is our perspective.

We can go back even further into our ancestral past to understand why the political process is so tribal. But for the business attire donned in the marbled halls of congress we are a scant few steps removed from the bands and tribes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and a few more leaps afield from the hominid ancestors roaming together in small bands on the African savannah. There, in those long-gone millennia, were formed the family ties and social bonds that enabled our survival among predators who were faster, stronger, and deadlier than us. Unwavering loyalty to your fellow tribesmen was a signal that they could count on you when needed. Undying friendship with those in your group meant that they would reciprocate when the chips were down. Within-group amity was insurance against the between-group enmity that characterized our ancestral past. As Ben Franklin admonished his fellow revolutionaries, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

In this historical trajectory our group psychology evolved and along with it a propensity for xenophobia—in-group good, out-group bad. Thus it is that members of the other political party are not just wrong—they are evil and dangerous. Stray too far from the dogma of your own party and you risk being perceived as an outsider, an Other we may not be able to trust. Consistency in your beliefs is a signal to your fellow group members that you are not a wishy-washy, Namby Pamby, flip-flopper, and that I can count on you when needed. (continue reading…)

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Mixing Science and Politics (and Economics)

So many of you have taken the time to respond to my blogs thoughtfully that I feel I should comment in kind. In looking through the many comments, however, I see that most of what I would say has already been said by people who responded to my critics. Nevertheless…

First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) but not okay to mix science and politics/economics? Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle. Skeptic is a science magazine, not an “atheist” magazine; nevertheless, we routinely deal with religious claims and no one ever complains about that. The closest we have come to political/economic issues is environmentalism (Vol. 9, No. 2 — sold out), overpopulation (Vol. 5, No. 1), and global warming Vol. 14, No. 1). For all three we published several articles; in Vol. 14, No. 1, for example, we published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.

One person wrote me a private email that said he thought of me as the next Carl Sagan, but now that I’ve gone to the dark side (turning Right, although I’m as critical of the Right as I am the Left), because Carl was “apolitical.” Carl Sagan was many things, but apolitical was not one of them. Carl was a Liberal and proudly wore his politics on his sleeve, such as when he marched in protest at nuclear sites or testified before Congress about the dangers of nuclear winter. I admire him for having the courage of his convictions, which intimately blended his science and (Left) politics. If you think Sagan was apolitical it is because you happen to agree with his politics and so those ideas seem simply correct, not political. If you don’t share his politics (I share about half of them), then it’s obvious that Sagan was not apolitical.

The liberal bias in the skeptical community was identified by many people in the comments section of my blog, for example by “DR,” “James,” and “Devil’s Advocate”:

… Sadly, there is a lot of hatred toward libertarianism at JREF [he means TAM]. I can be an atheist, believe gay marriage is ok, think nothing of smoking pot, and I won’t get half as much grief from a conservative that I do from an American liberal who reels and squirms when I say that the welfare state is immoral or that free trade and voluntary transactions in capitalism promote fair and just outcomes. It’s like the only reason why I have rationalized this set of morality is because I’m a supremely evil person and must be wrong… —DR

… I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the large group of liberal skeptics. I’ve talked to too many Democrat-card-carrying skeptics that spout the same unoriginal, canned rhetoric and continual spewing hatred of Republicans. For a group that supposedly supports tolerance, they’re anything but tolerant …
—James

I’ve three times over twenty years joined local skeptic groups and all three times there was a presumption that if I was a skeptic, then of course I’m also liberal in my politics. Two times I tried to be what I am but was marginalized, treated like a Goldwater (or Reagan, or Bush) mole. The third time I tried to avoid political discussion, but it was not possible, so, unwilling to lie, I left. My refusal to come over to pure liberalism clearly wasn’t going to be tolerated. All I wanted to do was examine UFO claims and crop circles, but… —Devil’s Advocate

Another critic named John D. Draeger makes a good point that I wish to acknowledge: “He [me] does NOT believe that political persuasions and different economic models for how societies should be run are moral value judgements…. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done.” That’s true, in a democracy the majority rules how to divvy up public funds for social services, and that tends to be more of a value judgment than a science. But as someone else wrote just below that, quite cleverly I think…

First of all, democratic societies can still be evil, as the famous saying goes: “democracy is two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And then in another famous quote (attributed to several), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. Thus our founding fathers gave us a republic … if we can keep it.

Even this is a value judgment, I agree, but surely we can apply some forms of social science to inform our value judgments. For example, we may as a society make the value judgment that it would be good if every child received a basic K–12 education. I agree with this value judgment, and would add to it the value judgment that it would be equally important for every child to have a computer and Internet access because that is the future of education. So we share that value judgment. However, the next question is a pragmatic one: who is going to pay for this education (and computers/Internet)? Parents? Churches? NGOs? Charities? Government? If the latter — the value judgment we have made — then do parents get to choose among the various government schools of where to send their children? (No.) Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair. To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

Some correspondents hated the political diagram because it seems to elevate libertarianism above the traditional left-right spectrum. Okay, then you come up with something other than the left-right linear spectrum to visualize where someone would fall on that line who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You draw it and I’ll publish it in a future blog.

Some people hate the word “libertarian.” I’m not crazy about it either, but haven’t thought of a better label. Labels are useful because they enable people to take cognitive shortcuts, but they also lead to shortcuts to nuanced thinking about what someone believes. “Oh, you’re one of those…” full stop. We all do this, of course, but I call myself a libertarian for the same reason I call myself a feminist, an atheist, and a pro-choicer — because it is the accepted language and we have to communicate ideas with language. But I much prefer to be assessed on specific issues.

Several of you said that I am a victim of one of my own central tenets of baloney detection: the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Yes, I will admit, I do this. Everyone does, and we must guard against it, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and economics. To combat this problem, I read the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal Los Angeles Times. I listen to such conservative talk radio hosts as Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Praeger as well as the very liberal Bill Maher. I have read Karl Marx’s books as deeply and carefully as I have read Adam Smith’s books. I have read a host of books from liberal and conservative and libertarian authors on the current economic meltdown. And although I have a few libertarian and conservative friends, because I work in the sciences and in publishing, the vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, staff, co-workers, and colleagues are liberals who I can assure you are never shy about letting me know where they think I’ve gone off the political or economic rails.

Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential. The Constitutional divisions of power in our Democracy — emulated by many others around the world — are a huge improvement from centuries past that allowed or enabled some to succeed at the expense of others. That was a zero-sum world. Over the past 200 years the spread of democracy and capitalism has done more toward achieving a Nonzero world than anything else — more people in more places more of the time have more power and liberty and wealth than any time in the previous four millennium. Therefore, the more we can spread democracy and capitalism the better off more of us will be more of the time.

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