March 2, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
March 2, 2012
The choreography of a typical human rights investigation goes like this: Researchers interview victims and witnesses and write their report. The local media cover it — if they can. Then those accused dismiss it; you have nothing more than stories, it’s one word against another, the sources are biased, the evidence faked. And it goes away.
On March 13, 2002, in a courtroom in The Hague, something different happened. In the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Patrick Ball, an American statistician, presented numbers to support the case that Milosevic had pursued a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. “We find evidence consistent with the hypothesis that Yugoslav forces forced people from their homes, forced Albanian Kosovars from their homes, and killed people,” Ball said.
Ball made this statement under cross-examination by Milosevic’s lawyer, who was, in fact, Milosevic himself. Over two days, the former president of Yugoslavia used his time to rage at Ball: The evidence was fabricated. The organizations that gathered the data were anti-Serb, trying to “galvanize public opinion and raise hostility against the Serbs and the desire to punish them,” Milosevic insisted. War is chaos, he said — how can you be so simplistic as to think that outcomes have a single cause? Why didn’t you examine Serb refugee flows? How can you, a self-described supporter of international law, be considered objective?
These were the usual arguments. They seldom persuade, but their mere existence creates a counterweight to the accusations made by human rights groups: Someone who wants to claim it’s their word against ours now has something to grasp. But Ball offered far more as evidence than interviews with Albanians who had fled their villages. He had obtained records from Kosovo’s borders of who left and when. He had exhumation data and a wealth of information about the displaced. In short, he had numbers.
Traditionally, human rights work has been more akin to investigative reporting, but Ball is the most influential of a handful of people around the world who see that world not in terms of words, but of figures. His specialty is applying quantitative analysis to mountains of anecdotes, finding the correlations that coax out a story that cannot easily be dismissed.
Could the movements of refugees have been random? No, Ball said. He had also plotted killings of Kosovars and found that both phenomena occurred at the same times and in the same places — flight and death, hand in hand. “I remember well the moment of astonishment that I felt when I saw the killing graph for the first time,” Ball replied to Milosevic. “I assumed I had made an error, because the correlation was so close.”
Something had caused both phenomena, and Ball examined three possibilities. First, the surges in killings and flight did not happen during or shortly after NATO bombings. Nor were they consistent with the pattern of attacks by Albanian guerrilla groups. They were consistent, however, with the third hypothesis, that Serb forces conducted a systematic campaign of killing and expulsions.
In testifying, Ball was doing something other human rights workers can only fantasize about: He confronted the accused, presented him with evidence, and watched him being held to account. At that point, Milosevic in his four wars had killed some 125,000 people, more than anyone in Europe since Stalin. But now the Butcher of the Balkans sat in a courtroom that looked rather like a community college classroom, with two Dutch police officers behind him and his cell waiting for him at the end of each day’s session, rhetorical bluster his only available weapon against Ball’s evidence.
Milosevic died before the trial ended. Ball returned to Washington and then went on to Lima to work for Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — one of dozens of truth commissions, tribunals, and investigatory bodies where his methods have changed our understanding of war.
BALL IS 46, STOCKY, SHORT, and bearded, with glasses and reddish-brown hair, which he used to wear in a ponytail. His manner is mostly endearing geek. But he is also an evangelist, a true believer in the need to get history right, to tell the truth about suffering and death. Like all evangelists, he can be impatient with people who do not share his priorities; his difficulty suffering fools (a large group, apparently) does not always help his cause.
He didn’t set out to be a human rights statistician. In the 1980s, before studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Ball got involved in protests against the Reagan administration’s intervention in Central America. He did more than protest — he headed to Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to pick coffee during the Sandinista years. He hated the work and instead built his coffee cooperative a database to do inventory control.
He first applied statistics to human rights in 1991 in El Salvador. The U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador arose at an auspicious moment — the new practice of collecting comprehensive information about human rights abuses coincided with advances in computing that allowed people with ordinary personal computers to organize and use the data. Statisticians had long done work on human rights — people like William Seltzer, the former head of statistics for the United Nations, and Herb Spirer, a professor and mentor to almost everyone in the field today, had helped organizations choose the right unit of analysis, developed ways to rank countries on various indices, and figured out how to measure compliance with international treaties. But the problem of counting and classifying mass testimony was new.
Ball, working for a Salvadoran human rights group, had started producing statistical summaries of the data the group had collected. The truth commission took notice and ended up using Ball’s model. One of its analyses plotted killings by time and military unit. Killings could then be compared with a list of commanders, making it possible to identify the military officers responsible for the most brutality.
“El Salvador was a transformational moment, from cases, even lots of them, to mass evidence,” Ball says. “The Salvadoran commission was the first one to understand that many, many voices could speak together. After that, every commission had to do something along these lines.”
Since the 1984 publication of Nunca Más, the report of Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons — the first modern truth commission — information about the toll of war and political repression has been routinely collected on a massive scale. Truth commissions from Chile to East Timor have gathered testimonies from tens of thousands of people, a process designed to provide dignity to the victims, identify crimes that require justice or restitution, and write the story of what happened — to try, as much as possible, to give closure to the past. Today, technology has speeded up and broadened the reporting process: Crowdsourced mapping tools collect and plot thousands of text messages from people who have witnessed violence. Ordinary people with cell phones take pictures and videos of atrocities that are uploaded and seen around the world…
Teller Reveals His Secrets: The smaller, quieter half of the magician duo Penn & Teller writes about how magicians manipulate the human mind
March 2, 2012
In the last half decade, magic—normally deemed entertainment fit only for children and tourists in Las Vegas—has become shockingly respectable in the scientific world. Even I—not exactly renowned as a public speaker—have been invited to address conferences on neuroscience and perception. I asked a scientist friend (whose identity I must protect) why the sudden interest. He replied that those who fund science research find magicians “sexier than lab rats.”
I’m all for helping science. But after I share what I know, my neuroscientist friends thank me by showing me eye-tracking and MRI equipment, and promising that someday such machinery will help make me a better magician.
I have my doubts. Neuroscientists are novices at deception. Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.
I remember an experiment I did at the age of 11. My test subjects were Cub Scouts. My hypothesis (that nobody would see me sneak a fishbowl under a shawl) proved false and the Scouts pelted me with hard candy. If I could have avoided those welts by visiting an MRI lab, I surely would have.
But magic’s not easy to pick apart with machines, because it’s not really about the mechanics of your senses. Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information.
I think you’ll see what I mean if I teach you a few principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions.
1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.
2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.
3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.
4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.
5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method—the thing that fools your eye—is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread. The hoop is what magicians call misdirection, a second trick that “proves” the first. The hoop is genuine, but the deceptive choreography I use took 18 months to develop (see No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).
6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. David P. Abbott was an Omaha magician who invented the basis of my ball trick back in 1907. He used to make a golden ball float around his parlor. After the show, Abbott would absent-mindedly leave the ball on a bookshelf while he went to the kitchen for refreshments. Guests would sneak over, heft the ball and find it was much heavier than a thread could support. So they were mystified. But the ball the audience had seen floating weighed only five ounces. The one on the bookshelf was a heavy duplicate, left out to entice the curious. When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.
7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets. I’ll explain it by incorporating it (and the other six secrets you’ve just learned) into a card trick worthy of the most annoying uncle…
The Hidden Hues of Humanism: Nontheism is on the rise in minority communities, but coming out carries risks and it’s time we all understood why
March 2, 2012
For years it has been lamented that humanist groups and events lack adequate participation by racial minorities. “Our philosophy is inclusive,” goes the refrain. “Our doors are open. Anyone can come.” Nonetheless, the usual overwhelmingly white demographic remains substantially unchanged.
We imagine we understand why. African-American and Hispanic communities are without freethought traditions, we argue, and longstanding religious orientations are built into their cultures. Therefore it’s up to us to bring humanism to them and hopefully overcome a longstanding bias against it. But, it turns out, that would be like bringing cheese to Wisconsin.
There is already a robust freethought tradition in the black community, for example. We can go back at least as far as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. NAACP cofounder W. E. B. Du Bois is another prominent example. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1940s through the ’60s the leader of its well-established secular wing was journalist and union organizer Asa Philip Randolph. He organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph was later recognized in 1970 by the American Humanist Association with its Humanist of the Year Award. Another such activist was Freedom Ride organizer James L. Farmer Jr., founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the 1976 AHA Humanist Pioneer. Beyond social justice advocacy, we find the arts overflowing with prominent black freethinkers. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the ’40s, writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, and Richard Wright could be counted among them. Emerging later were jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie “Bird” Parker, author James Baldwin, and novelist Alice Walker, who was named the 1997 Humanist of the Year.
Among Hispanics, far and away the most famous freethinker is Simón Bolívar, the great liberator of South America. Later, the humanistic Positivist Church had a strong social influence across the continent and left its mark on the Brazilian flag with the slogan, “Order and Progress.” Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic Church remains a ubiquitous presence in Hispanic communities, leading nontheistic Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes to note, “In Latin America, even atheists are Catholics.”
Still, the question remains: Why are minority communities so lacking in an overt humanist presence today? And what can be done about it? Norm Allen Jr., founder of African Americans for Humanism, has struggled with these questions. Writing in a forthcoming special issue of Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, he acknowledges his inability to answer. “For twenty-one years I had been the only full-time African American humanist activist traveling the world to promote secular humanism. Yet I still cannot unravel the mystery.”
But over the past year, likely answers have begun to emerge, provided courtesy of a new breed of minority humanists. Before we can understand their response, however, we need to better understand the present situation and how it came to be that way.
According to the 2009 Pew Forum study, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans,” 87 percent of those in the U.S. black population describe themselves as “religious” and 88 percent say they are “absolutely certain God exists.” Latinos have had similarly high figures in Pew surveys. Also in 2009, the Barna Group reported that 92 percent of African Americans identified as Christian, were more likely than whites to regard themselves as “born again,” and had a faith that is “moving in a direction that is more aligned with conservative biblical teachings.” Similar findings were reported for Hispanics. “Born agains” in that population “were more likely than all born-again Americans to contend that they have been greatly transformed by their faith.”
These realities make overt atheism largely taboo in such communities. Ethelbert Haskins has identified a contributing factor. Being an African American who was a leader in both the Civil Rights and humanist movements of earlier years, he notes that there are indeed many nontheistic people of color, but they don’t feel comfortable coming out as nonbelievers “until grandma dies.” They fear their irreligion would prove painful for older relatives and thereby estrange them from the family. Which means that black atheists and humanists are often fairly old themselves before the time is right, and by then it seems unnecessary to join a group, living comfortably as they have for so long in the closet.
If this seems like a weak point, because the same thing can be said for many whites who come from traditionally religious families, one needs to understand that the situation is statistically less frequent for the latter. After all, as the most populous and dominant group in the United States and Canada, whites enjoy greater latitude. Their raw numbers, varied cultural origins, and social mobility result in a wider range of acceptable religious (and hence nonreligious) choices. This makes white culture broad rather than insular, permissive rather than restricted. And unlike minorities living in oppressed neighborhoods, or working hard to gain middle-class acceptance, whites generally lack the bunker mentality or out-group status that tends to promote cultural conformity and identity politics.
Feminist/atheist activist and author Sikivu Hutchinson dives further into this in her 2011 book,Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
The legacy of Jim Crow and de facto segregation has limited black residential mobility, creating socioeconomic conditions in which blacks of all classes, incomes, and education levels live in close proximity to each other. Hence, African Americans remain the single most segregated racial group in the United States.
This leads to an insular culture where Christian verbal expression flourishes in tandem with the dominance of churches as social institutions. In this context, certain humanist values are perceived as out of step with black experience. Hutchinson adds that “in communities plagued with double-digit unemployment and cultural devaluation, self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical.” So a philosophy of dependency promoted by Christianity takes precedence. In such an environment, a concept of black “essentialism” or identity politics has developed that explicitly includes opposition to secularism. In her 1990 essay, “Postmodern Blackness,” feminist and social activist bell hooks has objected to this trend.
We have too long had imposed upon us, both from the outside and the inside, a narrow constricting notion of blackness. . . . This discourse created the idea of the “primitive” and promoted the notion of an “authentic” experience, seeing as “natural” those expressions of black life which conformed to a pre-existing pattern or stereotype.
Hutchinson shows just how far this has gone: “While there is tolerance for the very public bigotry of the Black Israelites, African Americans collectively view atheism and atheists as distasteful… [and] have some of the most negative views of atheists among all groups.” Why? Because, says Hutchinson, in a nation that remains racist, “the otherness and deviance associated with atheism is at odds with the elusive quest for assimilation [by racial minorities].” As a result, black atheists are closeted and invisible and represent only 1 percent of the black population.