Why They Killed Osama bin Laden (Maybe)

Vaughan Bell has pegged what sounds like a fascinating paper on the “total information war” the US is now fighting — and why it is fighting it.

The paper, writes Bell, “serves as an essential general introduction to how military thinking has moved on from assuming wars are fought with troops on the ground to conceptualising conflict as inseparable from its social impact.” Then, quoting the paper‘ (Military Social Influence in the Global Information Environment: A Civilian Primer,’ by psychologist Sarah King (emphasis mine):

A more prominent view among information warriors is that changes in information, technology, and social influence capabilities have actually transformed the terms of war. War between standing armies of nation-states is seen as increasingly unlikely, both because the United States is an unmatched military superpower and because damage that would result from use of modern physical weapon systems is deemed intolerable.

Our military’s enemies, experts predict, are most likely to be small, rogue groups who attempt to prevail by winning popular support and undermining U.S. political will for war. The argument here is that in most modern war, physical battles, if they exist, will be for the purpose of defining psychological battlespace.

In a sense, this is just a variation on war as diplomacy by other means. Yet if the U.S. is explicitly viewing its actions this way, it changes not only how you go about things if you’re Commander in Chief or Secretary of Defense — but how the rest of us might view missions such the one that just bagged Osama bin Laden.

By some accounts, bin Laden has posed a fairly small military threat for the past couple years — certainly much smaller than he did a few years ago. Yet he still posed a huge threat in the “psychological battlespace” King speaksk of. And partly by his own design, his very existence — the fact that he lived and breathed — posed a continued threat against the U.S. and other countries and social and cultural elements he had defined as noxious. I’m not making a legal or moral argument here, mind you; but if you see bin Laden’s existence in that light, you’d be all the more encouraged to lean toward the shorter, quicker term in any “Capture or Kill” mission. Capturing and trying bin Laden leaves him an active combatant in psychological battlespace, and if anything doubles his firepower. Killing him removes him almost completely from the battlefield.

Do see Bell’s take.

Art: Osama bin Laden Dead, by ssoosay, via flickr. Creative Commons license

Wonderful Horrible Histories, the Music Vid Versions

One of the pleasures of living in the UK, where I’m two-thirds of the way through a year here, is the stellar quality of some of the television programming, and particularly of the many science and cultural series produced by the BBC. A wonderful post by scientist and blogger Stephen Curry last week, Artful History, looked at the origins of those works in the 1970s “Civilisation” hosted by Kenneth Clark and first conceived by David Attenborough, who is more famous — and justifiably knighted and pretty much worshipped — for his magnificent work on the “LIfe” series on natural history he has produced and narrated over the last two decades of so. I generally hate television programming, and find almost nothing of value in the U.S. (though I admit my sampling rate is low of late, as I’ve not subscribed to cable for about 15 years). But the TV here has been a great boon and, at its best, an enormous intellectual and emotional pleasure. Some of the shows have brought me near tears.

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Gay Cavemen, Brave Gray Men, and Tiger Moms – April’s Top Posts

Neuron Culture’s Top Five from April:

Guest writer Eric M. Johnson topped the bill with The Allure of Gay Cavemen. It starts with a “joke about our ancient uncle being penetrated deep in the Alps” that was “picked up by [many] periodicals, but with a straight face,” and climbs rapidly to high elevation. Rightly an enormous hit.

Many people were curious to see How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray. It is indeed something to watch. From my book Reef Madness.

Tiger Moms and Orchid Children. Seriously tough love meets sensitive kid. What will happen? An exploration of the nature of nurturance and resiliency.

John Pavlus produced a slick film about The Coolest Lego Gizmo Ever: The Antikythera Mechanism. This post is 4 months old and must have gotten Dugg or something. No matter, it’s splendid to watch (vid above):  Bonus: Jo Marchant has a wonderful book about the discovery of the real (non-Lego) version, Decoding the Heavens.

Micheal Nielsen took the floor in A TED Talk to Open Your Eyes to Open Science

The Best of a Best Reading List

If you’re looking for good reading, you can find plenty — including some stellar science pieces — in Conor Friedersdorf’s post of Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism at the Atlantic. Here is my short list taken from his long one. Italicized comments are mine.

Last Days Of The Comanches by S.C. Gwynne | Texas Monthly

“By the autumn of 1871, the Western frontier was rolling backward, retreating in the face of savage Indian attacks. When a ragtag army of federal soldiers arrived on the Llano Estacado to crush the hostile natives once and for all, they had numbers and firepower on their side. What they didn’t know was that their enemies were led by Quanah Parker, a half-white war chief who may have been the greatest fighter of his time.” Some history! Praise God! Plus I’m glad to see Texas Monthly, a long-time favorite of mine from my native state, included here. Friedersdorf wrongly identifies the publication as the Texas Observer, another long-time favorite of mine. Some people get those great Texas magazines mixed up.

The Promise by Joe Posnanski | Joe’s Blog

The story of Bruce Springsteen’s most moving song, how it got recorded, and the way it captures certain truths about working class life better than anything else. This piece — a blog post — has a wee bit (but just a wee bit) of flab here and there, but it’s one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve read lately. The more so, probably, because my older son called it to my attention.

The Chemist’s War by Deborah Blum | Slate

The strangely forgotten story of “how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition,” ultimately killing perhaps 10,000 Americans. Blum is on fire on this subject, which she explores at depth in The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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Marc Hauser News: A Settling, or Pre-Quake Tremors?

Lots of news has broken lately about Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychology professor famous first for studies of morality and cognition in nonhuman primates, and then, starting last summer, for being found guilty of scientific misconduct by Harvard. No one seems quite sure what to make of all these subtle movements and shifts, and whether they amount to a settlement or pre-event tremors. Here’s my read.

First, let’s recall that “scientific misconduct” in this case does not mean sloppy work; it means, by the NIH definitions Harvard uses in such investigations, either plagiarism (not on the table here) or the manipulation or fabrication of data. Extremely serious charges. I covered this heavily last year here at Neuron Culture and in a wrap-up at Slate.

Given the seriousness of those findings from Harvard, many wondered if Hauser would be fired. Harvard has kept its cards close, however, probably for a mix of legal and strategic reasons, and probably too because a federal investigation is apparently underway, as sometimes happens if a researcher is accused of particularly egregious misconduct in research using federal funds. As a result, the Hauser news feed stayed quiet for a while. But it livened up over the last two weeks. We’ve heard that

  1. Hauser and a colleague replicated some missing raw data (actual replication here) which might mean not much but alternatively might ease his path to redemption
  2. Hauser has been banned from teaching at Harvard for one year …
  3. … but (corollary to #2) hasn’t been fired …
  4. … but, says the Harvard Crimson quite emphatically, should be.

So what to make of all this? I’ve done a bit of fresh reporting in the wake of these late developments, but not anything comprehensive, and — as has often been the case throughout this affair — no one wanted to go on the record. But with those caveats, here’s my take.

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How The Great Gatsby Flipped America

New York: The Promise

Part of my Lit Hit Friday Series, which looks at things literary.

A few weeks ago I had a pair of posts about The Great Gatsby — a book I’ve read four or possibly five times now, starting with the obligatory reads in high school and college. Few books offer such richness within such simplicity, and that richness means you get new things out of it, and wonderful surprises, every time you read it.

Yet somehow I’d forgotten that, and as I moved into the last quarter of the book this time around, I did so feeling that once the central crisis had passed I had read the best of it. I even thought, picking it up with about 30 pages left to go,  that if the book had a failing, it was that it did not sustain its greatness toward the end. And then I found myself reading with growing excitement as within those familiar pages I saw meanings I’d missed before — possibly because I was too young (or not old enough, which isn’t quite the same thing), or perhaps I just saw them this time because I myself have just been moving around east to west so much, and read it this time on the older side of the Atlantic, in London.

The key passage comes when Nick Carraway, disgusted and exhausted after Gatsby’s funeral, decides to quit New York and return home to “the Middle West.” In anticipation he thinks of the train journeys he used to take home when he was at Yale: small, unknowing rehearsals of this more decisive and defeated return. I confess my first reaction, having lived in Vermont for 20 years, was to laugh at the idea that Fitzgerald offers here, as he rolls out of (apparently) Chicago’s Union Station, of Midwestern snow as “real snow.” (I say this having lived near Cleveland.) Then I saw what he seemed to be up to: Something new and subversive, and deeply damning, that I’d missed before.

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How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

The history of science lives. Today it came to life over at the Atlantic, which just posted a key document in the fight over Darwin’s theory of evolution: a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species by Harvard botanist Asa Gray, which originally ran in the Atlantic in July 1860.

Gray’s review provided a pivotal victory for Darwin: It gave his highly controversial theory, which he had published the previous December, the support of one of America’s most respected scientists. Gray proved a key and effective advocate for Darwin in the U.S., especially during 1860, when he thrice defeated in debate America’s most prominent scientist, the zoologist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, a creationist, resisted Darwin’s theory ferociously. He did so both because he disagreed and because he himself had become the country’s most famous scientist by beautifully articulating a vision of species as works of God. He had built his career on this vision. He knew he had to defeat Darwin or go down himself.

He lost, however, and the defeat started with the 1860 debates with Gray. Gray, however, unlike the UK’s Thomas Huxley, aka “Darwin’s bulldog,” was not a pugnacious sort — not one to argue with archbishops. Rather he was a devout Christian who, as late as 1858, believed in pretty much the sort of static, God’s-order vision of species that Louis Agassiz promoted. But in a remarkable series of inquiries in 1858 and 1859, Darwin led Gray to his view.

The passage below tells how he did so. It’s from Chapter 5 of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral — a book about another long argument in the 19th century, that over the origin of coral reefs, which paralleled and in many cases inverted the argument over the origin of species. In the small story of Gray’s seduction, as in the two big sweeping stories of which it is part, ideas travel long arcs and sometimes strike, smack in the back of the head, the people who let them go.


After Darwin’s book came out in late 1859, Louis mounted an all-or-nothing attack on it. He waged his war on two fronts — one among peers, another in the popular press and lecture circuit. Louis actually won a draw on the popular front, at least in the United States, for most Americans chose the straddle mentioned earlier. Even 150 years later, over half of Americans continued to believe that God either created most species as is or somehow directs evolution.

This happy stance ignores, of course, the philosophical implications that haunted Darwin, and it overlooks the underlying disagreement about how one should seek answers. Louis’s idealist logic and Darwin’s empirical method clashed as violently as did their creationist and mechanistic conclusions. For scientists of the era — a time when science was self-consciously moving toward an empirical stance — this argument about method mattered as much as whether we arose from God or monkey. It was this methodological debate that Louis so decisively lost.

A debate, of course, requires an opponent, and even Darwin couldn’t argue effectively from across the Atlantic. He didn’t much like arguing anyway, preferring to sway through his writing while friends did the knifework. In England, Thomas Huxley, self-anointed as “Darwin’s bulldog,” did the bloodiest of it. Huxley won an early and instantly famous debate over Darwinism even though his opponent, the former Oxford debater Archbishop Wilberforce, fired the most memorable salvo of the entire long war: In June 1860, before an excited crowd at Oxford, Wilberforce wrapped up his creationist attack on Origin by asking Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from a monkey. The agnostic Huxley, murmuring to a friend that “The Lord hath delivered him unto my hands,” rose, rubbing those hands together, and dismantled the archbishop’s argument. He finished by declaring that if given the choice between kinship to a smelly ape or to a man willing to use his intelligence and privilege to twist the truth, he would choose the ape. The packed hall erupted in shouting; one woman reportedly fainted.

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Tiger Moms and Orchid Children

I thought I’d heard enough about Tiger Moms, but perked up when I came across Tiger Moms and Orchid Kids, by Sam Gridley. Gridley considers how presumably harsh Tiger Mom parenting might generate success and happiness even in highly sensitive kids, the kind you’d think such treatment would crush. What kind of parenting are we talking about?  Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins, describes the Tiger Mom approach in her Time story about Tiger Mom phenom Amy Chua:

It was the “Little White Donkey” incident that pushed many readers over the edge. That’s the name of the piano tune that Amy Chua, Yale law professor and self-described “tiger mother,” forced her 7-year-old daughter Lulu to practice for hours on end — “right through dinner into the night,” with no breaks for water or even the bathroom, until at last Lulu learned to play the piece.

For other readers, it was Chua calling her older daughter Sophia “garbage” after the girl behaved disrespectfully — the same thing Chua had been called as a child by her strict Chinese father.

And, oh, yes, for some readers it was the card that young Lulu made for her mother’s birthday. “I don’t want this,” Chua announced, adding that she expected to receive a drawing that Lulu had “put some thought and effort into.” Throwing the card back at her daughter, she told her, “I deserve better than this. So I reject this.”

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