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Entries in Iraq (3)

Saturday
Apr272013

Pseudoscience is criminal - James McCormick deserves jail

Today James McCormick was found guilty of massive fraud, after pocketing £50m profit from selling dowsing sticks. The "harmless" activity of dowsing is not just carrying around a Y-shaped stick looking for water; like many other ancient superstitions it has been incorporated into New Age nonsense and is used to look for everything from untapped oil reserves to lost golf-balls. 

I hope you are thinking "what nonsense"; I expect you followed it up with "but who does it hurt?". The problem is that believing in any pseudoscientific nonsense is a faith-based enterprise, removing evidence and reason from the decision-making process. If someone sells "lost golf ball dowsers" and sells them to the gullible at $20 each, it doesn't do much direct harm. But when society embraces this garbage it can do a lot of harm indeed.

Moving on to James McCormick, he bought up large shipments of the $20 "lost golf ball dowsers", replaced the stickers and then sold them to the Iraqi government at $40,000 each as explosive detectors. The claims were so over the top (it is powered by the user's static electricity, it can detect explosives from the air or even 1km underground, you can reprogram it by putting it in a jar with any other substance to absorb the vapours), that it is obvious to any rational person that the thing was a shame. McCormick even said in an interview that "the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar". 

Unfortunately, we aren't all rational people, and anyone who believes in dowsing for water is hardly in a position to rationally reject the concept of dowsing for explosives. The Iraqi government was so taken with these devices that they replaced physical inspections with dowsing - and people died as a consequence. When confronted with the scam the Iraqi General Directorate for Combating Explosives replied: "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs". And that is exactly the problem. It does matter whether it is magic or science, because science works but magic/dowsing/crystals/prayer/etc do not. Before you laugh too hard at Iraq, more than 20 different countries have bought into this scam, including Belgian police using them for detecting drugs.

James McCormick deserves jail. The greater point, however, is that a society which embraces "harmless" faith-based rubbish is more susceptible to harmful faith-based rubbish. Belief in crystal healing doesn't hurt directly, but it can lead to use of alternative medicines that can kill. Praying to get better from a cold leads to praying to get better from HIV - and hence less diligent use of actual HIV meds. Believing in a God looking out for you makes you more susceptible to lottery scams and the like. And the worst, of course, is when the gullible fools taken in are in positions of power, so we all feel the consequences of their faith-based decision making.

Monday
Oct252010

Wikileaks give us the first accurate picture of Iraq

What is democracy in the absence of information? How can the public keep the executive accountable for its actions, when the executive has the power to keep its actions secret? The whole world owes wikileaks a debt of gratitude for doing something our governments refuse to do - letting us know how many innocent civilians they are killing in our name.

When our governments were not refusing to give us information, they were actively telling us lies. "We do not do body-counts". Lie. We now know that they do have a body count in Iraq - 109,032 violent deaths, made up on 66,081 civilians, 23,984 "enemy combatants", 15,196 members of the Iraqi security forces and 3,771 US and allied soldiers. Of course, these figures are suspect, there are clear cases of civilians being lumped in with enemy combatants, and deaths caused by the indirect effects of the invasion (eg through the general break-down in infrastructure and law) are not included. We now know that 700 civilians died simply for coming too close to checkpoints, including pregnant women trying to rush to hospital. We just have so many cases of the military blatently lying to us, such as trying to sell Pat Tillman as a hero who was killed by Iraqi insurgents when they knew he was the victim of "friendly fire". How many cover-ups like the rape and murder of 14-year old Abeer Qassim Hamzeh and her family were successful, and have never seen the light of day?

It is only thanks to wikileaks that we have even the faintest idea of what is happening in Iraq.

Deaths in IraqDeaths in Bagdad

Tuesday
Dec122006

US failures in Iraq

I just watched a really interesting interview on the Daily Show. It was with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who lived in the Baghdad Green Zone for 18 months as a reporter for the Washington Post. He wrote a book about the Green Zone called Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

It was amazing to hear just how poorly planned the civilian component of the Iraq war was. We always hear about ineptness of the military planning, but the planning of the Coalition Provisional Authority by the Bush Administration was even worse (probably because Bush was not really concerned at all with the Iraqi people after the war, so why spend time planning for the interim government?). The hiring of the Coalition Provisional Authority was just mistake after mistake. They did not hire anywhere near enough people, for example only three people were assigned to rebuild infrastructure (by comparison West Germany brought in 800 to rebuild East Berlin). They hardly had anyone who spoke Arabic (finding civilians who spoke Arabic should not have been a problem, for example the Pentagon fired twenty Arabic translators from the Army during the lead-up to the war for the "crime" of being homosexual under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, even though they had a shortage at the time). The hiring was purely political appointees, candidates were asked if they were members of the Republican Party, if they voted for Bush in 2000, and in some cases they were even asked what their view on Roe vs Wade was (because it is better to have an anti-choice incompetent than a professional pro-choice candidate). So of course they ended up with people who had no experience. Over half had to apply for a passport for the first time, being asked to rebuild the Middle East having never experienced the world outside America. A 21 year old who had not yet graduated college was assinged to the team to rebuild the Interior Ministry (Defence/Justice departments), even after he said in his interview that his most meaningful prior job was driving an ice-cream van. A 24 year old who had never worked in finance was appointed to reopen the stock exchange.

It was just such colossal arrogance, as if America honestly thought that they had the power and ability to do anything they wanted. There is no doubt they have the military might required to blow the country apart, but what makes them think that the people will thank them for that? When the war was planned without regard to preserving medical, electrical or water infrastructure, what makes them think that anyone would prefer the illusion of freedom over stability and security? In a country of 29 million, up to 1 million have been killed, and 1.8 million are now refugees, having fled the country. The UN assessment of health care said "They were at the forefront. Now they're looking more and more like a country in sub-Saharan Africa." America shows its contempt for Iraqis daily, with repulsive torture camps and an unwillingness to even try to see the situation from the view point of those who were invaded.

Rather, the Bush government appointed a handful of inexperienced political ideologues to rebuild the country. And rather than actually working as part of the government, the Coalition Provisional Authority simply walled off a segment of Baghdad, Hussein's palace of course, into the protected Green Zone, isolated from Iraqis. Inside the Green Zone they built a little piece of America, they refilled Hussein's swimming pools, they built Chinese restaurants, cafés, several bars, a gymnasium and even a disco. Everyone has SUVs to get around, Salsa classes to learn to dance, and of course Bible study groups. And inside they get enormous grants from the US Administration then hire cheap Iraqi labour to go out and do the jobs.

Whenever Americans ask me why people overseas think so little of them, I tell them that it is because they unthinkingly elect governments which abuse the rest of the world as merely a plaything for American convenience. They use military muscle to overthrow democracies, they force unfair trade onto third world countries using their economic clout. And they are genuinely offended if anyone is not grateful for their interference. And yet how many Americans vote to keep their government accountable for its actions overseas? Precious few even bother to find out how they are impacting the world. Mention how Reagan used the Contra terrorists to overthrow a democratically elected left-wing government in Nicaragua (which had developed the best literacy and health care rates in the region) to install a right-wing dictatorship which plunged the country into chaos, and most look at you blankly. Only the smallest number know that the International Court of Justice found the US guilty of violating Nicaragua and ordered $12 billion in reparations, or that the US withdrew from the International Court of Justice and refused to pay the reparations. Yet the same people are willing to give the government their authority to play havoc in other countries, and wonder why people dislike them for it.