Sunday, May 1, 2011

Regime Change Resurfaces

Ramzy Baroud, the editor of the Palestine Chronicle online magazine and perceptive commentator on Middle Eastern politics, has an article over at Counterpunch where he explains the return of 'regime change' as an objective of US policy in the Middle East. The Libyan uprising provided an opportunity for the United States to reapply 'regime change' logic to an Arab uprising, thus perverting the original objectives of a rebellious population into the broader goals of US geostrategic interests in the region.

The American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative thinktank that has long advocated aggressive US military intervention against Arab countries, has now enthusiastically endorsed the leaders of the Libyan uprising. John McCain himself, a 'war-hero' and long-term proponent of US military interventionism, visited Benghazi last month to boost the morale of the rebels. Now boosting the spirits of an embattled rebellion is one thing, but promoting illusions that the US is motivated by the purest humanitarian intentions reeks of hypocrisy and duplicity. McCain's visit signals increasing US involvement in the Libyan war, because the situation on the ground has stagnated, as highlevel US military personnel have admitted that the Libyan ground war has become a stalemate.

The same thinktanks and neoconservative laptop mercenaries that enthusiastically lied us into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now hollering for an escalated US and NATO war in Libya in support of the rebels. Gaddafi's repressive rule is well known to interested observers, and his longterm collaboration with US and European imperialism is extensively documented. However, the emerging Transitional National Council, composed of former Gaddafi-regime officials, CIA assets, Islamist operatives and western-aligned politicians, indicates that any post-Gaddafi regime would be a proxy of the former colonial powers, opening up Libya's lucrative oilfields to multinational corporations.

There are emerging tactical disagreements about the extent of the United Nations resolution 1973 mandate for attacks on Libya. The Guardian newspaper carried the following story concerning doubts about the legality of air strikes after Gaddafi's second youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in NATO air strikes. The Russian foreign ministry stepped up its withering criticisms of NATO's war on Libya, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced the latest strikes as premeditated murder. How did a no-fly zone escalate so quickly into regime change? How could a supposedly limited measure of a no-fly zone purportedly intended to protect civilians and rationalised as a necessary evil, escalate into an all-out war for regime change where thousands of civilians are now directly in harm's way?

Back to Baroud's essay - he does make the important point that since the US defeat in Iraq, the US ruling class has resorted to clandestine methods and unmanned drone strikes to politically and economically destabilise regimes that it considers 'unfriendly'. There were no drone strikes and secretive special forces operations in Libya during the 2000s, when the Gaddafi regime became a welcome ally of the United States and Europe. Now that the Gaddafi regime has been abandoned by its former partners, with French and British ruling elites spearheading the drive for regime change, I wonder what will happen to the rebels. If they are armed and financed by the former colonial armies, they will become the proxies of the West. When NATO armaments are in active use on the ground, the necessary consequence is that ground troops will follow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mission creep - galloping into war

The passage of UN security council resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone over Libya was accompanied by strong reassurances that no permission was given for ground troops in Libya. We were told by the no-fly zone proponents that the resolution had strict parameters, to enforce a no-fly zone but go no further.

Mission creep is a nice euphemism for when a military invasion gradually expands beyond its initial parameters. The military and political leadership are seized with delusions of grandeur, and historical amnesia, forgetting the lessons of recent imperial adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan (Afghanistan is in its tenth year of mission creep, and the Iraq war is eight years old, despite the fake withdrawal).

Mission creep? Actually, it is mission gallop. Britain is sending a team of military advisors to the rebels. The parallels with the initial US intervention in Vietnam are striking. How is the purported 'humanitarianism' of this intervention to be realised with a military intervention of ever-increasing scope and depth? I suspect that the 'humanitarian' angle was just so much hot air designed to manipulate public opinion into accepting another imperialist intervention motivated by economic and military-strategic interests.

Most of the NATO members are at least highly sceptical, and the divisions between the European powers are clear for all to see. The Russian government has criticised NATO's Libyan adventure , but unsurprisingly NATO has rejected this criticism.

With increasing NATO participation with the rebel forces, the insurgency will become beholden to the interests and motivations of the NATO powers. The rebels will become just another cat’s paw of the imperial countries, and all its claims to represent a genuine, indigenous uprising against the Gaddafi regime will be at least tarnished, if not lost altogether.

Here is the Socialist Worker, a publication that is hardly pro-Gaddafi, publishing an article by Professor Alan Kuperman, regarding the false pretence for war in Libya. Kuperman's article originally appeared in the Boston Globe, not exactly a bastion of Gaddafi-regime propaganda. The Socialist Worker article is called Bait and Switch and makes for interesting reading.

I doubt that the white House was ‘duped’ as Kuperman alleges. I think that Kuperman’s use of the concept ‘collateral damage’ is reprehensible. Civilian populations suffer horrendously, and arm-chair warriors in the New York Times and associated American publication dismiss these casualties with the cavalier phrase ‘collateral damage’.

The Libyan regime is ruthless, that is so. Gaddafi’s troops have killed people in the towns they have captured. Here is the original Human Rights Watch summary of their findings about the deteriorating situation in Misrata. But genocidal? Let’s stop abusing the concept of genocide because we only cheapen its meaning, and false analogies only obscure the reasons why the Western powers went to war. The word 'genocide' is employed precisely because it is emotional, and harkens back to the darkest chapters of World War Two. Any reasonable human being would want to prevent another genocide, wouldn't they? And this sentiment was exploited during the initial media barrage for a no-fly zone in Libya. That was the first step in the neocolonial intervention.

The Independent ran an article by Kim Sengupta a few days ago called Misrata becomes Libya's Stalingrad. Now the situation for the rebels is serious and desperate, no doubt about that.

But a World War Two analogy? Stalingrad? I realise that the media typically engages in hyperbole to sell its product. But a misused World War Two analogy is not only perverse, but downright misleading. Patrick Cockburn writing in Counterpunch provides a perceptive analysis of the siege of Misrata. The supposed threat of Gaddafi troops indiscriminately killing people was played up to justify the initial no-fly zone. Now the World War Two analogy, with Misrata as Stalingrad and Gaddafi the new Hitler, exploits public sentiment into supporting ground troops for the latest neocolonial adventure. Misrata a 'medieval siege?' We were told that Saddam Hussein was the 'new Hitler', then it was Milosevic in Yugoslavia, and now Gaddafi? For US and British war planners, every year must be 1939, and every single opponent is the 'new Hitler', and every intervention is motivated by the purest humanitarian motivation - to prevent genocide. This tiresome, worn-out record keeps getting played only to cash in on World War Two mystique, reducing the war to a legend that keeps getting trotted out to support imperial objectives.

Now World War Two is an intensely fascinating subject. I think it is vitally important to learn and remember its lessons. For that reason, I think it is equally vital that we stop abusing its battles for current political and imperial interests. The NATO powers are not in the least concerned about preventing humanitarian catastrophes, but for exploiting political turmoil in order to impose a client regime on a former colony.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Understanding the Libyan uprising

The political Left, composed of various socialist groups, has been vigorously debating the Libyan uprising and subsequent French-led NATO intervention. This intervention has been backed up with the willing participation of Britain and the United States, but has caused deep divisions with the Western powers. Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic have all opposed the Libyan invasion.

Many on the political Left, while recognising the hypocrisy and duplicity of the imperialist powers, reluctantly support the intervention as a necessary evil that thwarted the impending massacre of Libyan rebels by Gaddafi loyalists. For instance, see this article in the Links magazine. There are many voices opposed to the American-backed Libyan invasion, as demonstrated by this compilation of excellent articles by various authors.

Many political commentators have been defending the imposition of a no-fly zone on humanitarian grounds. However, there are voices in the socialist Left that oppose the US/NATO intervention, and expose the hypocrisy of imputed 'humanitarian' for the actions of Western powers. See for instance, the article in the US Socialist Worker criticising the humanitarian disguise for the latest invasion of Libya. The article's authors, Eric Ruder and Tom Arabia, expose the stench of hypocrisy surrounding this latest intervention. Humanitarian motives disguise the economic and geostrategic interests that motivate the imperialist powers in their mad scramble to grab an even-greater share of Libya's oil wealth. A US delegation has visited the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council, the rebel leadership, to discuss future oil contracts and business opportunities.

While I have supported the uprising, I must be wary of any intervention by the former colonial powers that are supposedly motivated by humanitarian concerns. These concerns are nothing but a clever disguise for the imperial geo-strategic interests that the Western powers in Libya specifically and in the Middle East generally.

Posing as humanitarian, selfless rescuers of Libya's embattled rebels absolves the US, Britain, France and other powers of their direct culpability in creating the current impasse. Let's face it; Gaddafi opened Libya's doors to multinational capital, particularly oil corporations which the Europeans were quick to exploit. They armed and trained the Libyan military, and since 2001 the Gaddafi regime was a solid, highly-praised ally in the so-called 'war on terror'. Gaddafi even posed as a 'defender' of Europe against the supposed influx of African migrants, and guaranteed he was doing all he could to 'protect' European countries from this alleged danger.

The Links magazine, the theoretical journal of the Socialist Alliance, has this essay on how the Libyan regime became a willing collaborator of European and western big capital. In the 1990s, US multinational concerns were enthusiastically reaching out to Libya, in order to establish profitable businesses. With the Libyan uprising of early 2011, the Gaddafi regime became a liability because of its inability to quickly suppress the rebellion and guarantee continued cooperation with Western business interests.

What of the accusation that had the Western powers not intervened, troops loyal to Gaddafi would have massacred the insurgents? Let us note firstly that some groups in the Libyan rebellion did call for western intervention, and those calls were ignored at first. The US, Britain and France spent countless hours debating with their counterparts in NATO about the scale and efficacy of any military intervention. While some groups within the Libyan insurgency directly appealed to the European powers for help, those calls were ignored by the politicians in Europe. The Italian government for instance, voiced concerns that the rebels might establish an 'Islamic state' in Libya, and thus hesitated in supporting the uprising. But the western powers have now fully embraced the rebels, and I will return to this point later.

Secondly, there were moves by African countries to establish dialogue between the warring parties, and there were high-level delegations and proposals for African peacekeeping troops to be sent to Libya, much as happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s. All these proposals were made through the African Union, and they all came to nothing because of the insistence of the big capitalist powers on intervening militarily. France in particular was pushing for a military presence in Libya, while Germany has maintained its opposition until today. There was no need for an immediate no-fly zone, a tactic that was only a first-step; mission creep has set in, and the military intervention has quickly escalated into an embryonic military occupation of Libya.

I think the recent history of US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan prove the unreality of this tactic; it is impossible to just carve out a no-fly zone and remain at that. A no-fly zone necessitates an increase in military presence in the occupied country, initially with intelligence agents and special forces, and later with ground troops. It is the beginning of a slippery slope to foreign occupation.

The conditions for the original uprising are familiar to anyone who follows the politics and economics of the Arab countries; widespread unemployment and economic inequality due to privatisation and opening up to multinational giants, lack of opportunity, rampant corruption, inefficient and dictatorial political structures, the repression of dissidents and ruthless denial of democratic rights - which all create a combustible social situation. So while it is necessary to support the Libyan uprising, I think it is advisable to examine the political leadership of the Libyan Interim Council, which is composed of former Gaddafi regime politicians, former anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters, and various disaffected elements.

The article carried by the In Defence of Marxism website, summarises the activities of various members of the Libyan Interim Council. While the uprising started out as a genuine revolt against a brutal and corrupt capitalist dictatorship, the leadership of the rebels is fully coopted by Western imperialism. Reactionary bourgeois figures are in positions of authority in this interim council, and will turn Libya into a compliant stooge of multinational economic interests. A number of Libyan rebel leaders have extensive connections with the CIA, and some are Islamist fighters, having fought in Afghanistan and have connections with al-Qaeda. Their presence, while small, should give pause for thought about the nature of a Libyan post-Gaddafi regime. There is an extensive investigation published in The Independent. Khalifa Haftar, appointed a leading rebel military commander in March this year, has extensive contacts and training with the CIA. The Guardian carried the story about Haftar, who became a CIA asset in the 1980s and helped to run a CIA-sponsored anti-Gaddafi group.

No doubt the debate will continue as the situation on the ground in Libya changes from week to week. But at this stage, I will make this observation; while the Gaddafi regime is repellant, should the objective of regime change succeed, the regime will be replaced by a network of pro-capitalist stooges supported by external powers. This will be a severe defeat for the Libyan uprising and the ideals which motivated the original rebellion. The Interim Transitional National Council will open up Libya even further to US, British, European multinational corporations, and the inequalities and social injustices inflicted on the Libyan people will increase. This is hardly the outcome intended by the spontaneous uprising of the Libyan masses. The nature of the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, or the Maliki government in Iraq, reveals kind of regime will eventuate in Libya should imperialism be able to manoeuvre its underlings into the political leadership of the Libyan rebels.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books

London Review of Books (LRB) is a very staid, solemn, politically-middle-of-the-road publication that prints extensive reviews of books on social, political and economic issues. Perry Anderson is a professor of history and sociology at UCLA, and a committed socialist.

The online issue contains a sample of the great articles available in the print edition. Some complete articles are available for free online, but most require reader subscription to access the full contents. The LRB generally reviews books by academics who have written for a general audience, and its articles can sometimes be quite dense, yet rewarding.

Perry Anderson comes from the British, Western Marxist tradition, which has its strengths and weaknesses, like any school of thought. His writings are always packed with information, scholarly yet readable. His latest essay in the LRB is an outstanding survey of the presidency of Lula da Silva, the recently retired two-term president of Brazil. Anderson crafts his essay as a gripping political drama, which in fact, the Lula presidency was.

Can a democratically elected president leave office after two terms even more popular than when first elected? And can that politician become even more radicalised in office, taking on the corporate oligarchy successfully and emerge triumphant? Anderson argues that Lula, and the Brazilian Workers Party, did just that over the course of the first decade of the 2000s.

As Anderson states "By any criterion, Luiz Inácio da Silva is the most successful politician of his time." Quite a big call and one that is fully justified.

Anderson makes clear that Lula's terms in office were hardly peaceful - they were marred by constant attacks from the military-corporate oligarchy; political scandals tarnished his administration, Lula's popularity dropped precipitously in the mid-2000s, his social programs faced stiff resistance, and the major media were uniformly hostile. yet Lula and the Workers Party, based on strong trade union militancy, fought back with a political campaign and turned Brazil's economic fortunes around.

Anderson acknowledges that Lula's personal qualities contributed to his success, but avoids singling out his personality as the main factor in the success of the Lula presidency. He correctly observes that a correspondence of international and domestic factors contributed to the rise in the Workers Party fortunes - higher prices for Brazil's exports, increased demand for Brazil's soya and iron ore from China, and the general rise in commodity prices. Brazil's GDP increased substantially in the 2000s, as compared to the continual stagnation of the 1990s.

But Anderson also credits the Workers Party's domestic initiatives, such as helping the poor, in explaining Lula's increasing popularity. Lula launched the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash injection to mothers in the poorest strata of the population. Yes there are checks; the families must prove their children are geting the proper schooling and health checks. While the payments are small, they are made directly by the federal government, reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The financial cost of the programme is small, but its political impact is enormous, and has lifted 20 million out of dire poverty. (That figure comes from the Washington Post, not exactly a bastion of red-socialist propaganda). The Workers Party also subsidised education programmes, and the numbers of poor going to university trebled. Tight controls over the banks and financial institutions meant that the worst excesses of the 2008 global financial crisis were avoided in Brazil.

Brazil also assumed a larger role on the international stage under Lula's presidency. It has allied with Russia, China and India politically and economically, forming an alternative bloc that can challenge the power of the United States. Lula stopped consorting with the rich and powerful in the US, and moved towards greater Latin American solidarity, refusing to fall in line with the US as had previous administrations. Brazil officially recognised Palestine, and refused to join the US-sponsored blockading of Iran.

Anderson launches into a fascinating examination of the recent history of Brazil, and examines the historic subservience of Brazil to the interests of the US. While the previous civilian and military rulers of the country based themselves on the rhetoric of populism, Lula and the Workers Party on the trade union movement and democratic political structures that Vargas and Peron would never have permitted.

Anderson goes into various interpretations of 'Lulismo', and how the current regime differs historically from the prior governments. This is the more dense part of the essay, and Anderson goes into some historical detail which is beneficial for reader to understand the context of the Workers Party's rise to power. He documents how military rule suppressed political dissent, but also stifled intellectual culture, seeking to destroy any potential centre of resistance to the dictatorship. Accompanying the rise of the Workers Party is a growing intellectual ferment, with different periodicals thrashing out political ideas and debates about the way forward.

Go read the whole thing - it is a long article, but very worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Do you hear the calls for a no-fly zone over Yemen?

I am straining my hearing capacity, trying to listen to calls, any calls, for a no-fly zone over Yemen. Listen to London, Washington, Paris, Ottawa - can you hear any? If you cannot, then there is a perfectly good reason: there are no calls for a no-fly zone over Yemen.

The combined Western attack on Libya has gathered enormous media attention over, and we have all heard the calls for a no-fly zone in Libya. The stated reason is 'humanitarian' - the demonstrators in Libya need protection against the forces of the erratic tyrant Gaddafi.

There has been plenty of commentary on the geostrategic interests motivating the major capitalist powers in calling for a no-fly zone. There are commentaries on the destructive impact of such an attack on Libya, and the horrifying political and economic conditions for the Libyan people which will result from such an invasion. For instance, see here for a statement from the Socialist Alliance.

I wanted to draw attention however to another tyrant that is mercilessly killing demonstrators, locking people up to be tortured, and who has stayed in power for approximately 30 years - President Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has been rocked by protests for the past seven weeks. President Saleh has stayed in power for the last 32 years. It is one the oldest areas of civilisation in the Near East, and its recent history has been marred by poverty, tribal rivalries and a ruthless central government since reunification in 1990. No effort was made by Saleh to improve living conditions, reduce unemployment, fight against tribalism, or move towards democratic structures. Such a regime has been strongly backed by the United States, with Yemen receiving millions of dollars in official US 'aid'. Where that money has gone is anybody's guess. Saleh quickly aligned Yemen with the foreign policy objectives of the US, joining in the so-called 'war on terror', and playing up American anxieties about al-Qa'ida in the Arabian peninsula.

The deteriorating social conditions in Yemen lead to an eruption of protests against Saleh and his American-supported regime at the beginning of this year. The Yemeni security forces launched a violent crackdown, using live bullets, teargas grenades and police-backed thugs to attack demonstrators. Basically Saleh instituted a war against his own people; similar conduct by the Gaddafi regime was cited as a reason for the Western attack on Libya. Yemen does not have any oil or natural gas, but it is strategically located at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Millions of barrels of oil are transported through the Red sea every month. Yemen shares a long border with the oil-rich and US-backed Saudi Arabia.

Obama escalated the 'targeted killing' programme in August last year, with secretive unmanned drone attacks and US Special Forces operations in Yemen, rather than go for an all-out ground invasion which is guaranteed to generate domestic and international criticism.

Inflicting this kind of state terrorism - because that is what Obama's covert war is - will only increase misery and deprivation in Yemen. Most of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, and the population suffers from chronic hunger and shortages of electricity.

Well, given this situation of hopelessness and immiseration, is it any wonder that extremist groups find ready recruits to their particular brand of violent religious fundamentalism? It is no wonder that Yemen has a recent history of violent extremism, beginning with the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, and in October 2010 the suggested 'toner-cartridge bomb' detected on cargo planes originating in Yemen. Though on that story I remain sceptical, and urge the reader to consider the article by Professor Gary Leupp, who has analysed the 'toner-cartridge bomb' story here; the Yemeni Toner Cartridge Bomb story.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an excellent article for The Independent about recent developments in Yemen entitled A crucial US ally against Middle East terrorism or a safe haven for al-Qa'ida? Cockburn asks whether Yemen is a firm US ally, or a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalist extremism? Well, I will answer - it is both. Repressive governments in the Arab world, like Yemen's, are US allies and provide fertile soil for religious fundamentalism.

The Independent reports that a dozen of Yemen's top military commanders have deserted President Saleh, yet the latter refuses to step down, warning of an impending civil war.

As I understand it, the resignations of senior military figures was prompted by the killing of 52 unarmed protestors by government snipers. The massacre of the protestors last week did not succeed in derailing the protest movement.

The US White House issued lukewarm calls for the Yemeni president to respect the right of protestors to engage in peaceful assembly. The stench of hypocrisy is unmistakable given that the US is currently participating in a barbaric onslaught against Libya, as well as the ongoing criminal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Returning to The Independent, read the excellent article here, about how President Saleh exploited American anxieties to remain in power.

This lead article argues that Saleh has stayed in power by playing up fears of an al-Qa'ida style terrorist attack emanating from Yemen.

But that is in contrast to what Saleh himself claimed late last year, when he dismissed American assessments of the scope and scale of the terrorist threat, stating that Washington has deliberately exaggerated the threat from al-Qa'ida and the danger it poses to the security of Yemen. The Yemeni government insisted that fighting terrorism was the responsibility of the Yemeni authorities.

I think that rather than exploiting Washington's fears, the Yemeni regime has utilised the ever-expanding 'war on terror' to justify its savage crackdown on internal political opposition. Obama is contributing to the misery of the Yemenis by escalating the drone attacks and enabling hundreds of special forces operatives to kill with impunity.

So where are the calls for a no-fly zone to protect demonstrators in Yemen? If you cannot hear them, it is because they do not exist.

Lie to Me

No, that is not an exhortation for my readers to lie or try to deceive me.

That is the title of a fascinating series about how to detect whether someone is lying. We all would like to discover whether a person is being untruthful with us. It can be in our workplace, school, relationships, business - just about any arena of human social interaction. How can we read the all-important nonverbal communication to detect if we are having the wool pulled over our eyes? The TV programme Lie to Me explores that very subject.

I began watching a few episodes with a sceptical mindset. Would this be just another formulaic police-chasing-crooks story? My scepticism has given way to approval. Now I am hooked.

The basic premise of the series is the work of psychologist, Paul Ekman, who is a world leader on interpreting facial expressions (and non-verbal communication) and its role in detecting deception. From this interesting premise, a remarkable TV series is the result. Though the series presents an "open-and-shut" case every episode, Ekman is more tentative about drawing such firm conclusions from a person's facial expressions, or rather 'micro-expressions'. These are the involuntary facial movements, twitches and tics that we all perform when speaking, thus revealing our true emotions regardless of our verbal communication.

Tim Roth plays the principal character, Dr Cal Lightman, (loosely based on Ekman) the world's foremost expert on nonverbal communication and facial expression recognition. He portrays a psychologist that observes each person, usually suspects in a criminal investigation, for signs that their nonverbal communication - mainly facial expressions - indicate deep-seated emotions which contradict what the suspect has been saying. Roth's portrayal is the highlight of the programme, and his character is the pivot around which the whole series revolves. His character is urbane, witty, and clearly knows his subject inside-out.

Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell us about Human Nature has a brief summary of Ekman's research, which involved investigating whether there are universals of human emotion; facial expressions that convey emotions which are recognised regardless of the culture in which the person was reared. Ekman collected evidence that this indeed was so, proving that basic human emotions of anger, happiness, fear, are recognised across widely disparate cultures.

Lightman's company is hired by law enforcement or federal agencies who have a need to observe suspects and find any particular cues as to whether they are lying, thus shedding light on the case under investigation. Lightman uses applied psychology to determine whether a person is intentionally deceiving investigators, or is telling the truth.

This is not a run-of-the-mill cops versus robbers series. It is attempting to reflect the impact of social psychology research on our everyday lives. We all want to know when we are being lied to; this deception detection behaviour extends into our personal lives, our jobs, workplace, business dealings, friendships, schools - just about every aspect of our working and social life. How can we pick up on the telltale signals that someone is lying to us? Are there unmistakable signs that a person with whom we are dealing is lying? The series is based on the research that suggests there are 'universals'; facial expressions that indicate basic emotions, irrespective of the culture or ethnicity in which a person was raised.

Each episode presents a very definitive case for deception detection - I suspect that it is not so cut-and-dried in the real world. After all, this is Hollywood, where law enforcement agencies apprehend the culprits in the parameters of a one-hour show. However, the merit of Lie to Me is the basis of the series; the research work of social psychology, body language, facial microexpressions, and the application of this knowledge to situations where detecting deception is crucial in determining guilt or innocence.

There are always two parallel cases in each episode; Lightman working with Dr Foster, and the two junior psychologists heading up their own investigation into another case. Lightman occasionally trips up his colleagues, detecting whether or not they are being truthful with him. This inter-office dyanmic makes Lightman seem obsessed with his topic; he is always on bullshit-detection mode. The constant interplay with the other psychologist/investigators in his company can get irritating at times, but it is a device used by the show to demonstrate Lightman's ongoing commitment to his work.

The most fascinating parts of the series are the techniques Lightman employs to expose the deception of the suspects he is interviewing. In one instance, the mother of a child that has been abducted did not display significant facial expressions even when discussing the disappearance of her child. Lightman explains that the lack of forehead movement, and corresponding lines around the eyes, indicated that the mother did not experience any sorrow or emotional anguish while discussing her kidnapped child. Could she be lying? She is a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance. But then, Lightman does something interesting; while the questioners are in the room, he causes a lamp globe to explode.

The occupants of the room, including the mother under interrogation, are startled by the explosion. Lightman notices even in such an instance, there is no movement of the forehead muscles or eye lines on the mother’s face. Lightman sees the reaction of all the other occupants of the room; they register the typical startled or frightened reaction. The mother was also startled by the light-burst, but Lightman observes that she still lacks the involuntary facial muscle movement when confronted with something surprising. Could there be another explanation? Indeed there is; the mother is receiving botox treatment, which impedes facial muscle movement. Hence the reason why her face appears motionless when discussing even emotionally traumatic subjects, like the abduction of her daughter.

It is an entertaining series, with slickly produced episodes featuring intricately fascinating plotlines. Go watch it from now on.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Science Show on Radio National is back into the good books

Let me explain the title - I love the weekly Science Show on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Radio National. Their web page provides access to the transcripts and audio files of all their programmes. But my estimation of the Science Show dropped in recent months, because they devoted a whole programme to Matt Ridley, a popular science writer and commentator on social, political and environmental issues. Now Ridley went on to promote his latest book, the Rational Optimist. Now there is nothing wrong with that. However, Ridley is a climate-change denier, and providing such a non-scientific viewpoint unchallenged access on the Science Show was a shocking lapse in judgement, in my opinion. The Ridley interview was broadcast in September last year. Well, for a time, I was a bit peeved with the Science Show. But then.....

Earlier this month, the Science Show sprang back into the good books with flying colours. Why? Because it broadcast a talk by Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies, on the subject of a new book she co-authored, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Professor Oreskes gave a talk, based on her book, at the University of NSW. The main thrust of her talk was that doubt about the veracity of climate science was being systematically promoted by a powerful, well-connected and organised coalition of elite financial interests to undermine community acceptance of human-induced global warming.

Oreskes provided an excellent summary of the history climate science, examining how various scientists independently gathered increasing evidence that anthropomorphic global warming was occurring, and the available evidence gave cause for alarm. While scientists did achieve a consensus about global warming, they initially did not agree on exactly when the tipping points would occur. In fact, the few scientists that did make predictions based on the existing climate trends, like James Hansen, were criticised by their peers as having gone too far. Just as an emerging scientific consensus was taking hold, a well-orchestrated, politically motivated campaign was also beginning to form.

There are attacks on climate science from many quarters, as Oreskes elaborated. But the campaign to promote doubts about the reality of climate change emerged from a quarter that had had vast experience in criticising scientific findings; the tobacco industry, in alliance with scientists who had been working on US military technology during the Cold War. The multinational tobacco giants have had enormous experience in getting scientists to downplay, deny and undermine medical research that nicotine is addictive. If tobacco company executives stood up and denied any connection between their product and its carcinogenic effects, most of the public would not believe them. But if a scientist stands up and says the connection is doubtful, more people like you and me would be inclined to listen to the tobacco company's point of view and dismiss public concerns about the effects of cigarettes and second-hand smoke.

Where does the Cold War fit it? Well, Oreskes documents that a number of scientists that were working on nuclear weapons, in particular Reagan's misnamed Strategic Defence Initiative, were motivated by a political belief - the free market. The United States and its capitalist system, so the logic goes, is the most outstanding example of economic, political and individual liberty. This liberty is guaranteed by the free market, and the reduction of government regulation. You see, government regulation is synonymous with socialism, with a command economy. Now here are climate scientists stating that human-induced global warming is occurring, and it is because of our economic activities. So many environmentalists and global warming advocates propose some kind of economic regulation, which means government intervention in the 'free market'.

Well, this was just heresy according to the rightwing nuclear scientists and physicists who spent their careers developing sophisticated weapons to defend the 'free market'. Environmentalism, it is argued by the cold war warriors, is just the slippery slope to socialism. Oreskes details the intellectual roots of such a commitment to 'free markets' to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who wrote their main works at the height of cold war tensions. When environmentalists advocate that government step in and regulate health and environmental issues, that is the beginning of the descent into socialism and over-reaching government tyranny. Well, this philosophy found fertile ground in the area of climate-change denial, another way to attack the 'secret socialists' of the green-environmental movement.

Oreskes looks at how the conservative-oriented scientists, after having cooperated with the tobacco industry in the 1970s and 1980s, turned their attention to climate change denial in the 1990s. There has been a massive expansion of think-tanks and political institutes dedicated to the promotion of climate change denial. Oreskes pointed out that in Australia, we have the Institute for Public Affairs, which is extremely active in promoting climate change denial, reducing government regulation and advocating 'free markets'.

Fred Singer, a cold war physicist has a long and extensive track record of initially defending the tobacco industry, and then going on to provide scientific credibility to the anti-scientific campaign of climate change denial. For instance, Oreskes provides this illuminating item of Singer's history: "In the 1980s, Singer worked with the Reagan administration to cast doubt on the significance and severity of acid rain, arguing that controlling sulphur emissions was a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem, so implying that environmentalists had exaggerated the significance of acid rain, and it wouldn't be significant enough to justify what it would cost to fix. So this is an argument we hear again today regarding global warming."

Climate science is where politics, society and scientific research all intersect. While it is impossible for everyone to undertake a systematic and exhaustive study of climate research, it is advisable to read books like Merchants of Doubt in order to be aware of the politically-motivated contrived 'debate' about this issue, and which powerful financial and political interests such a debate serves.

Go read (or listen to) Oreskes' talk here.