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August 15, 2002
Debate, Academy-Style

Yesterday I heard on NPR a debate between two anthropology professors, one at the University of North Carolina, the other at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. They discussed whether anthropologists, who often have valuable knowledge of social customs and beliefs, should assist the U.S. military in its actions against terrorism. The UNC professor, as you might expect, said that anthropologists need not work with the military, because they have already provided useful information in the form of descriptions of how war hurts people. She argued further that the purpose of the military is to kill and to control populations, and implied that respectable academics will have no truck with it.

The professor from the Naval School pointed out that a) the real military is very different from her opponent's caricature; b) the goal of the military is to win quickly with minimal bloodshed, such that assisting them is a net benefit to the populations in question; and, c) these are our guys in a war against people who would kill us all, and common sense dictates that we give those defending us our support.

The NPR interviewer asked what each thought would emerge from the upcoming American Anthropological Association meetings. The Naval School professor said she expected a lot of head-nodding as speakers denounced cooperation with the military. In response the UNC professor insisted there will be real discussion. Who do you think will prove right? Before you answer, consider the fact that towards the end of the debate, the Naval School professor noted that, not being at a university, she was free to continue her research and work without censorship.

Think about that. A scholar cites not being at a university as her protection against censorship. And many of us who have spent significant time in universities would probably agree with her sentiment.

I wasn't going to think about this, because it infuriates me. But today I received in my email box the following exchange (abbreviated to protect confidentiality) from two people on a research list-serv of which I am a member:

Member 1: "We have recently won a contract with the Army to conduct scientific research and knowledge econometric analysis at several commands. . . If you are interested in collaborating with us on a US Army project, please contact me . . ."

Member 2: "I for one have ethical qualms about working for an organization whose stated aim is to kill people--and that performs this task rather often, and for purposes that further the economic degradation of human life all over the world and also contribute to the ecological crisis. As one of the people whose offices were destroyed on September 11, I also object to the fact that they often claim to do this in the names of my murdered building-mates--even though the policies and interests they defend are the same as those they did before that date. How do others feel?"

So, let me tell you why I am now compelled to bring it, as we say in the professional wrestling biz. In the days following September 11th, 2001, a debate emerged in this same research group, between those who favored cooperating with the U.S. government, and those who argued either along the lines of Member 2, or in the mealymouthed tones of people who in their heart of hearts can't condemn the September 11 murderers terrorists because of their hatred of America. This wasn't just an academic exercise -- some people on this list have skills that are in high demand by U.S. military and security branches. Their decisions about whether to cooperate or stonewall could cost lives -- either those of terrorists and their allies, or those of innocent civilians.

What follows are some excerpts from that debate, which was sparked by an article in a national newspaper detailing how people with the skills of this group may be critical in the war on terrorism:

* "The ___ (and other professional scientific organizations) has a code of ethics which specifically prohibits its members from deliberately exposing their subjects to harm. Fingering individuals for assassination or imprisonment on the basis of [our work] is clearly in violation of these policies, and -- in my opinion, at least -- is unbecoming behavior for a social scientist. . . I am as much interested in ending terrorism as anyone else, but I think that we endanger the field when we volunteer to perform studies which will harm our subjects. Social science is the hard-won heritage of all humanity, and I would not place it at risk in the name of political expediency."

* (To the writer of the above quote) "You are a brave man... strong and sobering words."

* "I must say that this article raised some issues in my mind that deserve serious thought. The richest country in the world is about to invade the poorest country. By helping the government attack symptoms aren't we contributing to its unwillingness to face the problems created by our possibly biased Middle East policies? Isn't destroying terrorist networks similar to invading Afghanistan - quick fixes that ignore underlying structural issues?"

* "We should not actively, as academics and professionals, take part in the application or development of . . . methods directly to facilitate the hunting down of terrorists or the impairment of their networks. This violates our "contract" with the public as scientists. . . Further, our work is, and should remain, in the public domain. On the other hand, I would not hesitate to refer vetted counter terrorism experts to publicly available materials. . . As for [the previous comment], I feel it comes close to blaming the victim. Yes, if we don't understand the forces that lead some governments to condone and support terrorism and some people to give up their lives to it, then we can hardly effectively combat terrorism. That does not mean that we ourselves can in any way condone it nor should we justify terrorism in terms of the rationalizations of the down-trodden."

Another writer speculated that giving an interview to a major newspaper about the methods of those on the list is akin to helping the CIA, because the CIA, so far as we know, reads the papers. He also made a veiled reference to nefarious non-university types lurking about the list.

You can understand, of course, why I could only tolerate so much of this nonsense. Thus I laid down some smack:

"I want to make clear that in the comments that follow I am not inviting a debate on the merits of force versus peace seminars as a means of ridding the world of terrorism. If readers oppose cooperation with government agencies due to some personal ethical or ideological position, then so be it. My argument is only with those who want to make an argument that the goals of social science are such that it is wrong for social scientists (as opposed to humans in general) to be involved in issues like national security and anti-terrorism.

With that said, I've thought a while about something else ___ wrote:

'Social science is the hard-won heritage of all humanity, and I would not place it at risk in the name of political expediency.'

I wonder if this hyperbole doesn't transgress the boundaries of reasoned argument, insofar as I question the premise that the social sciences have much credibility to lose. It seems to me that beyond communities of social scientists themselves, the social sciences aren't held in especially high regard. When we list the great advances of Western civilization, there aren't many 20th century professors of anthropology, sociology, political science, or economics on the list of contributors.

Certainly there are people with social science training who have contributed much to society (and equally many who have wrought horrible destruction, e.g., Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, etc.), but I would argue that they do so as a result of applying the tools -- begun as ideas in the minds of theorists -- to the very real, very messy, sometimes very bloody problems of humanity -- precisely the domain that some academicians eschew as beneath their purity. If social science is to have any meaningful heritage, it will be because it lends itself to the solution of real-world problems, not because it remains above the fray for fear of misuse, or of losing some sacred purity of purpose which is in reality not a public purpose at all, but merely a private pursuit of knowledge, publications, and provincial prestige.

I don't intend any of this to question ___'s concern about the misuse of [our methods] in a manner that harms the innocent (or more likely, the not directly guilty), which I believe is valid, given what I know of the strengths (and limitations) of [our methods]. But I think there is more to be gained from applying [our methods] in ways the article mentioned than mere "political expediency." These people will kill again, and some people on this list may have the skills to help stop them. Shame on us if we refrain from helping for fear of losing our academic virginity, or because we are timid, in the seeming safety of our ivory towers, about using force against murderous thugs.

Finally, I want to respond to an assertion by ___:

'We should not actively, as academics and professionals, take part in the application or development of . . . methods directly to facilitate the hunting down of terrorists or the impairment of their networks. This violates our "contract" with the public as scientists.'

I'm curious about the content of this contract. When we justify five-figure per student subsidies from taxpayers, we usually do so in the language of our contributions to societal well-being. I'm quite certain that most members of the U.S. public would quickly defund social scientists who refuse to lend their knowledge to the defense of their fellow citizens.

It is indeed a terrible thing to contribute to another person's death -- this I don't dispute. But let's not pretend that through our inaction we can remain innocent of bloodshed. We are guilty, in my opinion, if we withhold knowledge that can stop terrorists.

This, dear readers, is what one calls "the turd in the punchbowl." Imagine a bunch of shriveled debutantes curling their upper lips at such a discovery at the annual Prune Festival Luncheon, and you'll probably capture the general reaction from the academics who disagreed with me. To be sure, there were a few from the list firmly on my side (or rather, I was on their side), and their responses were eloquent. For example:

"Please explain to me how this isn't blaming the victim: It is wrong to try to disrupt and destroy criminal networks that have killed thousands in cold blood, without warning, without condition, without remorse. At the same time, the RIGHT approach is for the U.S. to change its policies (or at least, look guiltily through them to understand how, by supporting the mujaheddin, we OBVIOUSLY were asking them to kill thousands of our citizens)."

The problem is that, when you press most academics on moral issues, they resort to that last refuge of the scoundrel, the Land of Grey. To wit, this response to the immediately preceding comment:

"Your facetious commentary simply falls into the trap that ___ and others are warning against. ___ doesn't "blame" the US in the way you suggest, by the way _I_ read his comment. The world ain't so black and white.... our outrage, frustration, sadness, and sense of betrayal and violation notwithstanding. Analysis won't be as simple as you make it out to be; any solutions based on anything other than very long term strategic thinking will possibly reproduce the very environments (conditions, if you will) that have spawned the awful tragedy of last Tuesday. We all grieve together over the loss of life, and perhaps even more so, over the loss of our adolescent ontologies."

Those of you who know me understand that grey does not go well with my skin tone, which by this point was bordering on bright red with lovely shades of purple. So I posted the following:

"Interesting commentary by writers who, like myself, are too benighted to see how the issues surrounding last week's attacks aren't so black and white:

'Now that everyone seems to agree that we are at war, it's important to make clear just what that war is about. It is not primarily about Israeli or Palestinian grievances. Some of the most dedicated fanatics-Osama bin Laden, for instance-rarely bother to focus on the Palestinian issue. Despite what our blinkered academic establishment thinks, the war is not about post-colonial resentments either. Colonialism is two or three generations past. The rich nations have spent so heavily on the underdeveloped world that who-did-what-to-whom many decades ago cannot explain what is happening. No, this is a global cultural war, pitting a pan-Islamic movement of fundamentalist extremists against the modern world and its primary cultural engine, America, "the Great Satan."'
(Link here)

'At the heart of the propaganda campaign against the United States is a moral equivalence conflating what is evil with what is merely imperfect. In the Cold War, this tactic took the form of the argument that the United States was just as dictatorial as the Soviet Union because poor Americans were allegedly not "free" from injustice, racism and want. Now that we have entered a new kind of war, this fatuous argument has been recycled: Yes, Islamist maniacs slaughter thousands of innocents ... but think of the psychic pain inflicted on the Middle East by Taco Bell and the Backstreet Boys. Who is to judge which is more inhumane?'
(From Canada's National Post)

'A WHOLE swathe of this country's educated class is unable to distinguish between right and wrong. There is no other possible conclusion. There are apparently thousands of people out there (or maybe hundreds, or maybe it is just a few dozen with exceptionally good media contacts) who think that it is quite acceptable to see the mass murder of innocent people as a "message" that needed to be delivered.'
(From the London Daily Telegraph)"

The next morning, I found this email from the list administrator:

"Please, take these and similar email notes elsewhere. This has nothing to do with [our list]."

Which brings us back to today, and the declaration from a list member that he has no interest in supporting the military. So far he has received an "Amen," and two requests that we not debate the issue. Unable to refrain from tweaking a nose or two, I posted the following:

"Funny, I recall a similar discussion sprang up on this list last year. I was one of the few arguing in favor of academics providing support to the U.S. military. Several of those opposed to cooperation with the military argued that those of us characterizing the terrorists and their sympathizers as evil were painting too black and white a picture. Some time soon after I posted links and excerpts to three articles addressing this point: one explaining what the war is about from the Muslim fundamentalists' point of view, one critiquing the "it's just not black and white" point of view, and one addressing the tepid response of academics to the new wave of patriotism sweeping the U.S.

The next morning ___ sent me an email which read: 'Please, take these and similar email notes elsewhere.'

Can someone provide some parameters for what defines acceptable commentary this time around?"

This is all reminiscent of another list-serv I used to be a member of, one devoted, ostensibly, to a discussion of the intersection of complexity sciences and management. One morning someone made an offhand jab at Christianity, and incorrectly paraphrased a verse. I corrected him by citing a credible (NASB, for those of you interested) translation of the verse. This was followed by a string of rebuttals about the meaning of this and related verses. Each time, I replied by citing the actual verses, and explicating their meaning. It wasn't long before I was lambasted for "foisting religion" on people in a forum where religion had no place.

There's a common thread here: many people to the political left seem to enjoy making little jabs at their favorite targets (Christians, America, free markets, etc.), but are quick to hide behind walls of decorum and appropriateness when challenged. In short, they behave like intellectual cowards. They parade their insipid opinions in front of captive students, toss out their views in safe domains, and scurry like mice when they discover there's a thinking person standing in the corner with a broom in his hand.

And perhaps that's why the Blogosphere is virtually devoid of leftists. And a leftist who provides his real name, an email address, and a "Comments" feature on his page is rarer than reasoned commentary in the journal of the Modern Language Association. Posting opinions and tolerating responses is, it seems, beyond the purview of the average leftist. Once a bastion of free speech and debate, the radical Left has become a self-righteous little tribe of Pharisees. And this is why, thankfully, they are becoming decreasingly relevant in modern political life.

Good riddance.

Posted by Woodlief on August 15, 2002 at 02:07 PM


The Statistical Research Group was formed at Columbia University in 1942 as
a subsidiary of the Office of Scientific Research and Development by the
economist Allen Wallis (later the dean of the Business School at U. of
Chicago) to marshall the talents of the country's leading statistical minds
for the war effort.

As he tells it in an article in the Journal of the American Statistical

" During the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, several high ranking Army
officers flew to Washington from the battle, spent a day discussing the best
settings on proximity fuses for air bursts of artillery shells against
ground troops, and flew back to the battle to put into effect advice from,
among others, Milton Friedman, whose earlier studies of the fuses had given
him extensive and accurate knowledge of the way the fuses actually

Friedman, in chapter eight of "Two Lucky People" explains that he had been
working on settings of the fuse in anti-aircraft projectiles, and quotes
Wallis for an example of how work in one field can be carried over to

"Friedman's inspiration to fit the fuze data by joining a positive and a
negative exponential distribution, thus generating a sharp-pointed mode,
followed an evening of conversation about economics with Arthur F. Burns,
who questioned the assumption, which is made a priori by economists, that no
economic series or distribution ever has a discontinuity in the first
derivative--or probably any other derivative either."

Friedman himself continues:

"Because of its importance, strict secrecy was maintained on the proximity
fuse. None were initially made available in the European theater because of
fear that they would fall into the hands of the Nazis who could use them to
blunt severely the heavy aerial bombardment they were being subjected to.
The ban was lifted for the Battle of the Bulge...this necessitated hurry-up
instruction in what the fuse was and how to use it....After the war, we
learned that the worst fears of the guardians of the fuse had been realized:
the Nazis had captured a box of proximity fuses; fortunately they never
realized what they were and never made use of them.

"The fuses were extremely valuable for the Navy in the Pacific in defense
against dive bombers and suicide bombers."

Friedman also notes:

" I was impressed with how much the distributions of points of burst looked
like the distributions of income by size that I had worked on at the
National Bureau [of Economic Research]....Later on, that...was part of the
stimulus for, an article "Choice, Chance, and Personal Distribution of
Income" that I published in 1953".

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at August 15, 2002 5:10 PM

Excellent, Tony, as always. The question is - are the leftists becoming increasingly irrelevant in academic life? I fear not.

Posted by: susanna at August 15, 2002 5:31 PM

social science is the hard-won heritage of all humanity

This holder of a B.S. in a social science knows full well what utter, ir-redeemable drivel that comment is. But I can certainly imagine the person who wrote it. My whole department was full of them.

Posted by: The Dodd at August 15, 2002 6:53 PM


Excellent posting. However, given what I perceive to be the dubious value of most findings in the social sciences, precisely what sort of valuable information in the fight against terrorism do you see coming from its practitioners?

The people you quote would seem to be utterly incapable of actually addressing real-world social problems. Endless thinking, not pragmatic problem-solving, is their forte. Let them have their meetings and papers. Let them play with the intractable complexities of humanity and devise novel and speculative theories about it. But don't let them anywhere near the brass hats and the spooks.

Posted by: jim at August 16, 2002 11:52 AM

I'm afraid that's all top secret. Actually, those willing to help appear to be the most skilled, so it all works out. I've always suspected that academics opposed to consulting and cooperating with businesses and government are, in their heart of hearts, afraid to be exposed as incapable of creating actual value.

Posted by: Tony at August 16, 2002 2:40 PM

Living and working in a town that has a large "liberal" university ( guess which- it is where Tony got his PhD), I have come to the conclusion that the only good leftist is a dead one!! I am in favor of a dirty war like they had in Argentina in the 70's, where they extirpated leftists "intellectuals" (like the ones in the lists Tony mentions), and leftist sympathysers from academia, and all positions of influence intheir society. Maybe my position is a bit on the extreme side, but, if you see academic leftists and their disciples in action, you would come to the same conclusion. E.G : today in front of the local Federal Building, leftist "peace and justice", and pro-Palestinian suicide bomber lovers held a protest- one o the losers, who unfortunately once was one of my sociology profs, tried to tell me that Israel and the USA were the source of all malfeasance on t his planet, and that bin-Ladin and his minions were "just lashing out at the years of extreme oppression the USa had subjected them to!!!" When you realise that almost all academics(in most of the social science and humanities fields), usually hold such views, you will understand why, I have such strong views about what the fate of academic leftists and their fellow travellers ought to be.

Posted by: sidss at August 17, 2002 6:08 PM

Have mercy on them...

Remember a lot of the current profs had their views hardened during the 'Nam protest years when they were young, idealistic, and stupid, and that they have never since re-examined their views nor allowed questioning by others. I knew some of them during college, and they really saw no conflict in naming a bunch of putative bomb-throwers (and some real ones) things like Student Non-violence Coordinating Comittee. I thought they were nuts when they poured blood over student transcripts, and it hardly altered my views when they started defending bank robbing as a way of getting money for their causes. I knew I had no good answer to the problems but at least I tried to reason to one: they claimed to already have answers, which stopped at the point society had been destroyed - presumably some miracle would then occur and a golden age would arise out of the rubble, but only the out-and-out Marx-Lenin-Stalin-Trotsky-Beria-Guevara groups said they had any method for improvement.

They have not changed a bit. I hope I have.

Posted by: John Anderson at August 17, 2002 10:41 PM

If it's unethical to apply social science to solve real-world problems, what good is it? OK, don't answer that.

These academics witnessed a mass murder. They have information that could help the police track down the killers. But they won't cooperate because it's better to let thousands of innocent people get killed than to bring the guilty to justice.

The moral idiotarianism of these professors is just staggering.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at August 18, 2002 3:52 AM

The one social science that seems to be immune from this sort of thinking is economics. Nobody in econ seems to care much about political correctness, and going to work for the government is actively encouraged.

I imagine this results from the fact that we actually get to put our theories into practice, and receive a verdict from the real world on whether we have a clue. After stagflation, in particular, we've all been forced to admit we're not smart enough to micromanage the economy, which cuts the collective ego down to size.

Posted by: Anne at August 18, 2002 12:51 PM


While it is probably not quite what you meant, there are a number of leftist economists out there. Besides the obvious example of Krugman, show me a major university whose economics department doesn't have a significant number of Marxists (perhaps it would be easier to show me a university whose economics department isn't *dominated* by Marxists). I agree that Economics is the social science where you are most likely to encounter a voice of sanity, but it's not like the hard sciences such as engineering or medicine, where politics are totally irrelevant.

Posted by: Timekeeper at August 19, 2002 7:41 AM


Sure, economists have political opinions, but in my experience we don't have the intolerant, politicized atmosphere Tony's talking about. I'm studying at Columbia (a very politicized university as a whole), and just last year our chairman went on leave to join Bush's Treasury Department, and another senior professor is Bush's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. And no one in the department seems to mind that they're mixing it up with Republicans, defending Republican policies on TV, etc. It's a non issue.

Thirty years ago, that might not have been true; from what I hear, 30 years ago Columbia's econ department may very well have been dominated by Marxists. But nowadays, I think the profession has come back from the brink. I honestly can't recall a single pro-Marxist comment from any professor in the past four years. Even during our present debate over graduate student unionization, which you'd think would smoke out any Marxists hanging around.


PS And by the way, just because politics are irrelavant to a department's subject matter doesn't mean the department itself can't be politicized. From what I hear, there was some pretty nasty stuff going on between the students in the physics department over unionization.

Posted by: Anne at August 19, 2002 9:28 AM


I agree with everything, except for one nit: the Pharisees got a bad rap they didn't really deserve.


Posted by: Christopher Weuve at August 22, 2002 4:26 PM

i am looking for an artical explaining about gears and how they operate. if you have anything on that please send it to my email address
thank you

Posted by: stephanie at January 18, 2003 12:19 PM