The Final Frontier

This is an exciting week for my little university.  We’ll be hosting Neil Degrasse Tyson (you know, from television?) on Wednesday for a talk.  The upcoming event reminds me that I’ve been trying to get around to writing about funding space exploration for years now.

Not that the subject hasn’t been written about extensively (as if some of my other subjects haven’t as well – were you expecting another piece about ISIS?).  Tyson himself has talked and written extensively about the NASA’s budget.

First, let’s address the idea that the US government is slashing research funding, particularly for NASA.  Right now the U.S. government budget for NASA is a bit over 17 billion dollars.  That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s about 0.5% of the budget compared to almost 4.5% of the US budget during the heart of the “space race” in 1966.  Nevertheless, in inflation-adjusted dollars, it’s more or less what NASA’s budget has been since 1971.

NASA’s budget represents about 10-15% of the total of 135 billion dollars spent by the government on research and development this year (about 3.5% of the budget).   Is that a lot or a little?  I’m not sure, but I can guarantee that every scientist and spokesman invested in particular fields receiving that money wishes they had a bigger slice of the pie.

Perhaps the real problem isn’t the size of NASA’s slice, as much as it is the size of the pie.  If we look at research and development spending as a percentage of the budget over recent decades, it looks relatively flat.  However, since the federal budget has declined slightly relative to the size of the US economy, federal research and development spending has also declined slightly as a percentage of the overall US economy.  Still, it is a bit deceptive to argue that R and D spending as a percentage of the economy is only half of what it was in 1970, as one famous commentator likes to note, because it’s been at a fairly stable level since 1971 rather than continually trending downward.

(All of this isn’t to say we shouldn’t increase NASA’s budget, as well as federal spending on science in general – we should – only that the sky isn’t falling as much as some might portray it.)

Federal spending on science is in any case one of the most efficient uses of public funds, because so much of it pays for itself.  Spending on disease prevention saves medical costs down the road, and new technological discoveries can add many times more value to the economy then the research underlying them cost.

What about private industry – can’t they pick up the slack instead of the taxpayer?  Sometimes.  The work of companies like Space-X are incredibly exciting, but much of the knowledge underlying private endeavors was discovered by scientists and engineers receiving federal funding.  Mark Twain once said,

“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”

Oftentimes private industries are simply laying the final bricks in a endeavor built upon earlier public funding of basic scientific research.

All of this cost-benefit analysis, however, gets away from Neil Degrasse Tyson’s favorite point – that space exploration isn’t simply a good monetary investment, but also an investment in the human spirit.

Everyone has to decide for themselves if they would like to fund “unprofitable” space ventures like seeking out new alien life, discovering how the universe came about and evolved, and discovering all the glories oddities that exist out there now.  Democracy, fortunately, allows us to decide together how much of our tax dollars to invest in our collective curiosity.

As for me, sure, I’d rather a billion dollars were spent on further research into, say, spinal cord injury research and treatments, instead of NASA.  Everyone probably can think of something they’d like to see a billion or twenty billion spent on instead.  Everyone, however, doesn’t have our same individual priorities, while NASA’s efforts invariably yield discoveries that benefit all humanity.

Rather than thinking of things we might rather see NASA funding spent on, perhaps it’s best remind ourselves of other things we spend money on that may be far less worthwhile.

The best thing about funding space exploration to me, in the end, is that the knowledge that is learned is essentially eternal, outliving everyone.  I might not have existed yet when man landed on the moon, but I’m really glad it happened.  I find it satisfying to know my tax dollars are going to something that will enrich all future generations yet to come.  How many things do we spend our money on that you can say that about?

Evil and not Evil

There’s a scene I like in the last of the Star Wars “prequels” (the good one), where Obi Wan Kenobi and Annakin Skywalker have a brief discussion regarding the moral relativism of evil over light sabers.  If you looking for a more sophisticated discussion from me than you’d get from George Lucas, you are likely to be disappointed.  But, the question of evil in the world, and what’s not evil, is something worth discussing in the same way that trying to come up with an understanding of what “terrorism” is is a worthwhile effort.  While there might not be a single, objective definition of evil (I know, some would argue there is a single, discernable definition to be found in one religious text or another – but that is part of the problem), if we are to use the term like many writers have taken to doing a lot this year, then perhaps we can think of some of criteria for thinking of evil in today’s world – a least in a minimalist sense that most people can agree upon.

One thing that is hard to define as evil are unintended consequences.  While some might consider the Iraq invasion, which almost certainly cost over 100,000 lives and possibly many more, as having been evil or I might wonder whether Republican efforts to block sensible health care and gun control reforms are evil, it’s hard to believe that those were or are efforts aimed foremost at hurting people rather than misguided attempts to help them. Similarly, conservatives can point to pro-choice efforts and say its advocates costs millions of lives – but does that make its supporters evil?  In all these cases, the outcomes are disputed or in doubt, and none of the proponents of these actions have hateful or nefarious motives, whatever the outcome.

So, perhaps its motivations that most define evil?  This is a trickier issue, the least of all, because it’s sometimes hard to discern what lies in the hearts of men and women.  Still, not knowing who is always evil shouldn’t detract from our ability to define it, in part, as something based in hate.  Noble motivations are based on a desire to contribute to humanity – all humanity – not just those like most like you.  Evil ones are those that seek to hurt people for the sake of revenge or simply to remove their presence from the world – usually those that disagree with the victimizers or aren’t part of their in-group. 

Another question that arises is whether noble intentions justify wicked deeds.  It’s the kind of question I ask my students when I bring up the question of famous abolitionist, and murderer, John Brown.  Do the ends justify the means when the goal is as noble as ending American slavery?  Or how about ending the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of civilians?

Motivations matter, but so do methods.  Many greater minds than mine have thought and written about these questions, and just war theory has a long tradition. As far as the intuitive moral calculus goes for most people, however, the more people who are harmed, and the further those people are removed from actually taking part in violence themselves, the worse something is.  A lot of this feeling about evil comes from the fact that we are mostly social animals with well-developed prefrontal cortexes, who can instinctively empathize with those being hurt and angry at the injustice of the injuries.

Maybe it is illustrative to look a two of the biggest crises spots in the world this year when thinking of how we label people or groups as evil. 

First, we have Vladmir Putin, the Russians, and the pro-Russian militants fighting for independence in the eastern Ukraine.  The consequences of the fighting have probably about two thousands deaths, probably mostly civilians (including those on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17).  The outcome is still uncertain as to what the political fallout will be in the longer term.

The motivations of the locals who are fighting is self-government.  They don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore.  Russian motives can be chalked up to a variety of Machiavellian schemes, but largely the people and leadership of Russia are acting out of emotional affinity for those across the border who are waving Russian flags and asking for their help.

The methods of the fighters have been largely traditional.  There have been violations of the Geneva convention, such as the forced march of POWs through the streets of Donetsk in a parade.  But no mass slaughters of civilians or prisoners.  And it’s unlikely, to say the least, that Russian leadership will decide it’s time to reconstitute the USSR or drop a nuclear bomb on Eastern Europe any time soon, no matter what some otherwise serious writers have suggested.

Compare that to those involved with ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State – I’ll stick with ISIS):

The consequences of ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq have been thousands of deaths, mostly of prisoners and civilians.

The motivations of ISIS is a utopian one involving the creation of as large an Islamic Empire as possible.  Ultimately, like Al Qaeda, ISIS would like to recreate the borders of the original Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Spain to Central Asia.  Even more ultimately, they would like the whole world to be united not just under Islam, but a very specific sectarian-specific interpretation of Sunni Islam.  They would also like everyone under their control to convert to this version of Islam or be killed or expelled. All this, of course, in the service of their view of God’s will – which hardly ennobles the effort.

The methods of ISIS are increasingly well-documented, and the brutality has been absolutely staggering.  Mass killings and graves and beheadings are only the start.  To speak of ISIS committing war crimes is like speaking of the worst serial killers as felons.  ISIS not only parades is prisoners, but films their subsequent executions for propaganda purposes.  Even in the world-gone-mad of the Third Reich, the Nazis tried to keep their atrocities secret.

So, here we have two groups with very different motivations and means of achieving their goals.  Only in the most relativistic universe could we not describe one group of militants as far more evil than the other.  The world “evil” should probably be used very sparingly for only the worst of the worst of this world, if the world is to retain any useful meaning.  But the worst of the worst are here now, killing people today in Iraq and Syria, and they are pretty damn evil.  What to we can and should do when confronted by evil is, however, a question for another day.

Violence in Gaza — failure all around

When I was a younger man, I helped teach an international relations class at a summer camp for “gifted” middle schooled-aged students in the small town of Davidson, North Carolina.  It was the summer of the year 2000, and the Israelis and Palestinians came as close as they ever did to reaching a comprehensive settlement of their issues during two weeks of negotiations at Camp David.  We followed the negotiations closely in that class, so it was with a heavy heart that I had to tell the class near the end of the course that everything had fallen apart.

To my surprise, one young Jewish student started, for lack of a better word, celebrating.  He’d been taught (not by me) that Israel shouldn’t be so soft on the Palestinians as to dare to compromise on issues like the status of Jerusalem.  I think of that reaction sometimes when I see the competing narratives unfold surrounding the violence currently taking place in Gaza.  Now the willful blindness is perpetuated by adults, many of them representing us in Congress, rather than a 13 year-old boy.

Neither side, neither peoples – most of whom have dutifully lined up behind hardline leaders – have much to be proud of as far as the current violence is concerned.  Israelis, and many of those supporting them, seem blind to the frustration, hopelessness, and anger that living in an “open air-prison” one’s entire life must engender. Rather than aggressively seeking solutions to the problem, Israelis have been far too willing to support ineffectual leadership that is content to hunker down and accept the long term status quo without much of a nod toward making any concessions.

On the other hand, Palestinians and their supporters seem blind to the one thing Israelis want – total security (or as an Israeli tour guide once explained to our group – Israel will be ready to make peace when its neighbors treat them as Canada treats the United States).  All too often, Palestinians seem to default toward supporting those fighting an emotionally gratifying, but ultimately counterproductive “resistance” that targets civilians and makes peace impossible by denying Israelis the one thing they need to support any type of peace effort.

The group that bears the most blame, however, is Hamas (many would claim I say this as a “mainstream narrative” — in this case, the mainstream is correct). The religious zealots of Hamas have no interest in ever providing Israelis the assurances they need to live in peace. Sure, there has been talk in the past of accepting a long-term ceasefire with Israel, but, for what they perceive as religious reasons, Hamas members can never accept the existence of an Israeli state. Peace cannot be achieved as long as Hamas holds any significant influence anywhere among Palestinians.

The Israeli government, backed by the United States, missed what increasingly appears to have been a golden opportunity earlier this year when the Palestinian Authority (under the leadership of the moderate, and I’d say largely admirable, Mahmoud Abbas) proposed a “unity government” that would have sidelined Hamas in all-but-name and extended the PA’s authority into Gaza.  Rather taking a bold diplomatic risk, Israel chose to take a military course-of-action that was bound to kill over a thousand people.

Now that they’re there, however, Israel should finish the job as best as possible.  Finishing the job means destroying as much of Hamas, killing and imprisoning as many members as possible, destroying its infrastructure of tunnels and rocket stashes, and avoiding civilian casualties even when it means foregoing military gains or even endangering troops when necessary.  The more this is accomplished, the less likely another invasion will happen again anytime soon and the more lives that will be spared in the long run. At the very least, it is essential to the future that Hamas comes out weakened rather than as torchbearers of continued resistance.

Sometimes, tragic events like those unfolding in Gaza can end up leading to unexpected new paths.  My hope is that Israelis come more to terms with the fact that, however justified they may feel their reasons to be, hundreds of innocents are dying at their hand and in their name – and that is not the type of people the typical Israeli would want Jews to be.  I would hope that Palestinians come to see their problems as being exacerbated by Hamas, not solved.  Unless the Palestinian Authorities’ reach can be extended into Gaza, there is little hope things will ever get better there.  Maybe all that is happening will provide that opportunity.  I think, if I live long enough, I’ll see peace in the Middle East in my lifetime — but things feel further than I’ve ever seen from the optimism that pervaded the Summer of 2000.

Supporting Kurdish independence

For those of you who have been keeping up with this blog, you know I’ve been on a bit of a “self-determination” kick this year. It was also the subject of a nice discussion I had this week in DC with the good folks who belong to the Truman National Security Project. At that talk, the subject of the Kurds came up several times. In my mind, there’s no group more deserving of self-determination than the Kurds, a group that has been described as the largest nation-without-a-state.

The Kurds have never gotten much of a say in their own destiny. The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 and the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 that replaced it largely ignored Kurdish aspirations — dividing the people up mainly among the countries that became Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. After that – well, it hasn’t been an easy century for the 25 or so million people who identify culturally and linguistically with the Kurdish nation. Without getting into the details, here is a timeline that pretty much captures the near-constant state of conflict the Kurds have been in ever since.

Understanding international affairs requires an understanding of motivations and opportunities. The Kurds have been motivated to have their own state for generations, but the opportunities to actualize those dreams have been few and far between. Windows-of-opportunity for decisive actions are rare – but they do occur as they did recently as the Russians and the pro-Russian groups of the Crimea took advantage of the breakdown of authority in the Ukraine.
Similarly, a breakdown in central authority has occurred in Iraq as ISIS militants have seized control over the northern parts of the country. There has been no time in Kurdish history when the opportunity has presented itself in such a way that independence is a real possibility. The Kurds of Iraq should seize the chance while it exists.

A Kurdish declaration of independence is risky, of course. Just as the US founding fathers realized that they would be hung, or worse, Kurdish leaders would be putting themselves and their people at grave risk if they took radical action.

The main obstacle to Kurdish independence at this point is no longer the central government in Iraq – it’s the Turkish government. Turkish officials, who once refused to even acknowledge the existence of Kurds, have moved in recent years to a greater acceptance of Kurdish self-determination – but not independence. The Turkish government fears (in fairness, probably rightly so) that an independent Kurdistan would serve as a base for stirring up dissent among the larger population of Kurds living in Southeastern Turkey.

The Turkish government, however, has shown restraint, some might even say tentativeness, in dealing with the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts to their south. It does not seem likely that the Turks would be willing to risk forcibly intervening in Iraq and risk becoming embroiled in a protracted conflict with the well-disciplined Kurdish peshmerga militias. It also doesn’t seem likely (although not impossible) that the Shiite-led Maliki government would invite Sunni Turks to invade their country either. In any case, it’s a reasonable risk for Kurdish officials to take in pressing forward.

Of course, ideally, the Kurds might prevail on the Turkish government to recognize a Kurdish state as a helpful ally in the region. With Turkish support, an independent Kurdistan would have a much easier time obtaining recognition at the United Nations – the ultimate stamp of approval for a country.

President Obama has claimed many times to have a close relationship with top Turkish leaders. He should use these ties to help the Kurds push their claims. The alternative is to support the status quo, with the Kurds being perpetually tethered, however loosely, to a sham Iraqi state with which fewer and fewer Kurds identify.

Drone deterrence

In a class I teach each May, the students and I start off by watching videos about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and interviews with former Manhattan Project scientists struggling with conflicted emotions about their role in letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle.  Once it was out, that genie could not be put back in, only put to good use – or good non-use as it turned out. By deterring more active Soviet aggression, nuclear weapons granted the time necessary for the Soviet economic and political system to stagnate and as its Communist ideology to pass out of fashion.

In recent years a new genie has been let out of the bottle – not one that can destroy the world, but one that has changed it forever, and one with which we need to come to terms.  Since there is no going back, there is a need to better conceptualize long-term “drone strategy” in the same way analysts came to think of “nuclear strategy.”

The cornerstone of drone strategy should revolve more around the threat of their use then their actual use.  The threat of unleashing a sustained drone campaign against an armed group that might seek to attack the US is almost certainly more likely to protect the US than launching limited strikes that may cause militants to seek retribution when they would otherwise be more concerned with local issues.

Boko Haram in Nigeria is a good example of a group that should be deterred rather than outright attacked with drones.  Gaining notoriety most recently by its kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, the group is now arguably the most violent and loathsome of Al Qaeda’s “children.”  But, there is no evidence that the group plans to attack the US or Americans anytime soon.  Using drones to strike at the group would incentivize, rather than disincentive, the behavior, by reducing the costs of striking back.  The same goes with the militants currently overrunning parts of northern Iraq.

Some would argue that terrorists can’t be “deterred” because they do not fear dying like “rational” leaders did during the Cold War.  This may sometimes be true on an individual level, but the deterrent value of sending in the drones is not that an individual may be killed but, rather, that the group might be hindered in achieving its goals.  In this sense, even zealots are able to assess the perceived costs and benefits of provoking the US to action.

None of this is to say that say that drone strikes are not appropriate if a group IS actively plotting strikes against the United States, only that we need to act judiciously not to attract new enemies.  The goal is to enhance rather than reduce threats to US security.

In a New York Times Op Ed a couple years ago, Job Henning wrote that future US drone strategy should involve “work[ing] the use of drones into an adapted doctrine of deterrence. Drones should be used primarily to dissuade or prevent injurious acts.”  In order for such a strategy to become real, however, drone policy has to move out of the shadows and become more transparent.  Deterrence is about clear communication as much as it is the threat of force.

The alternative to re-conceptualizing drone policy is to continue using them here and there in what comes across as an arbitrary and ad hoc fashion to many American enemies.  Occasionally bad people (and civilians) will be killed and operations disrupted, but at the price of continuing American involvement in other countries’ wars, harm to US’ image abroad, and in increase in the desire of militant groups to attack American civilians. Just as nuclear weapons served a greater purpose by remaining in their silos, drones might one day serve the same purpose — as primarily a tool of deterrence rather than targeted assassination that helps contain murderous militancy until the ideology underlying it slowly goes out of fashion.

The basics of climate change research

Many issues, probably most in political science, have a strongly normative aspect – the legal status of abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, how involved the US should get involved in Syria.  Professors often can’t claim any sort of ethical high ground on these issues many times any more than the students seated in front of them.

Then there are other issues that involve separating fact from fiction, science from political narrative.  Some politicians and leaders for instance, may weave an intricate narrative portraying the history of human evolution as “lies. . . from hell” perpetuated by an elite increasingly bent on secularizing society.  Many people really don’t understand the principles of evolution (which is kind of a shame, because the basics can be explained in like five minutes), but, rather, navigate their belief based on the dynamics of their social network and whom they have come to trust and believe in. 

Whether or not man-made climate change is occurring or not is another question that has an objective answer.  It is occurring or it’s not. How quickly it will occur is another objective question.  I don’t try to shove answers down student’s throats on the issue – the notion that professors “indoctrinate” students is greatly exaggerated – just as often as not in my experience, presenting conclusions different from their own just makes students double down on their previously held beliefs (this is known as cognitive “bolstering.”).  But I do explain from a methodological standpoint some of the key points that lead the vast majority of scientists to believe that climate change is real, mostly due to fossil fuel emissions, and difficult to predict in terms of its future effects.  Here are the four main points I emphasize: 

1). The theory is sound and not that complicated

It might surprise some, but global climate change theory has been around since the late 1800s.  The premise that carbon dioxide absorbs and re-radiates energy is, as Nate Silver points out in his excellent book, The Signal and the Noise, a discovery that is from the era of the first light bulbs and internal combustion engines.  This immutable fact of physics hasn’t changed and the more carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) increase in the atmosphere, the more the total energy trapped in the system increases, all other things being equal.  Anyone who disputes that the earth is becoming warmer would have to present a convincing theory about where all that extra energy is going.

2). All other things being equal, or ceteris parabis, may be the most important phrase in statistics.  What qualifies a Nate Silver, or me, for that matter, to comment on global climate change?  The answer is that it is a consummately statistical issue, and both us are trained in understanding statistical issues (he a little bit more than I). 

The beauty of statistics is that one can analyze particular causes while holding all other variables constant. Perhaps the most important thing that those suggesting that global climate change is “exclusively a natural phenomenon” don’t understand is this concept of statistical control, which allows data to be analyzed in such a way that any recognized and measurable alternate explanations can be taken into account.  In other words, we know that greenhouse gases are causing global warming because the models underlying the research take into account natural temperature variations and statistically isolate them from the rest of the data in the same way that medical research can isolate the independent effects of smoking on life expectancy from things like age and socio-economic status.  If the skeptics can come up with a variable that can be measured and incorporated into a quantitative analysis that accounts for a lot of warming that hasn’t been considered previously, then they might be onto something.  In the meantime, however, there is no “gotcha, betcha-didn’t-think-of-this” argument concerning factors like solar cycles representing some mysterious previously unconsidered source of climate change.  They’ve been considered, estimated, and incorporated into pre-existing models hundreds of time. They have an influence over time on global temperatures, but they are not the only influence.

3). Global climate change is a very macro-phenomenon and you can’t personally observe it.  At least most people can’t, unless they are old or in a particularly climate-sensitive location.  You can’t look at a particular winter or summer, say it’s really cold or really hot, and think it’s going to provide any evidence for or against climate change.  You can’t extrapolate changes in the weather in Indiana, or the United States (which makes up about 2% of the Earth’s surface area).  No particular hurricane or drought can be attributed to it, any more than any one of Sammy Sosa’s 609 home runs can be attributed to steroids. 

The appropriate way to look at temperatures is not with this graph or this graph, but with this one. No year or even decade tells the whole story.

4). Faulty forecasts don’t invalidate past analysis – especially in the shorter term

I don’t know what the weather is going to be two weeks from now, but it’s probably going to be warmer.  From past data, this is a pretty good guess, but it might be wrong if something “fluky” happens to offset past weather trends.  However, I can pretty much promise you that next month will be warmer as a whole than this month.  Substitute decades for weeks, and months for centuries and you have climate projections.  There have been a lot of indications that the last decade has had “flatter” temperature increases than many scientists predicted in the nineties.  It’s not surprising that past projections would be wrong – it’s much harder to analyze future temperatures by simulating future data then analyzing information that has already been observed and recorded.  Alternate factors affecting global climate change that have occurred in the past can be accounted for statistically because we know the extent of past changes in things like sea ice, cloud cover, and ocean currents.  We don’t know precisely how and to what extent these factors will inhibit or re-inforce global climate change in the future, though.  

As more data is gathered, however, the climate projections should become better.  That’s how science works – more data is better than less data.  It’s appropriate to remain somewhat skeptical when presented with simulations concluding how much global warming will take place.  But we do know it has almost certainly been occurring up to this point, and we know that global greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating. 


Peaceful self-determination for the eastern Ukraine (too)

I had a nice lunch with my department colleagues and ex-Senator Lugar this week.  Senator Lugar is really a nice person, and has great stories (statements that apply to my department colleagues as well).  Still, a lunch with a VIP like that is not like a normal lunch where everyone kind of talks in small groups to the people next to and across the table from them.  It’s more like a friendly question and answer session with the VIP doing the answering and everyone else trying to come up with something to ask so the silences don’t get too long and awkward.

During one of those silences I asked the Senator about the Ukraine situation.  He gave an answer indicative of the complexity of the situation, but I pressed a little further in asking what was wrong with the people of Eastern Ukraine agitating for more political distance from Kiev.  He offered a common argument against allowing for greater self-determination: namely, that it would open sort of a Pandora’s Box of similar claims across the region that would cause even more conflict.

At that point decorum sort of dictated that nod and smile and not say anything else, but, while it was a fair argument, I disagreed.  The people of eastern Ukraine should not be forced into a political system they find alienating because of seemingly similar situations in places like Transnistria or because a lot of Russians live in a couple of the Baltic countries.

Trying to create and live by hard and fast norms in international relations is sometimes a noble effort.  Nobody advocates slavery or seizing overseas colonies by force anymore, not just because of the diplomatic consequence, but because people across the world have come to the understanding that these are bad things that bad people advocate.  With the case of maintaining the territorial integrity of states, however, there is always going to be the countervailing norm that suggests that people are entitled to their own destiny and self-determination.  If you read my last entry, you know that I tend to sympathize with the second (self-determination) more than the first (territorial integrity) – or at least feel that self-determination is too often overshadowed by a desire to maintain borders.

And, just as I understand why taking control of the “r”ussian-dominated Crimea was so important to Russians, it’s not hard to understand why the current Russian-leaning “terrorists” in Eastern Ukraine are forcing the issue of their own political status.  That’s not to say that I think it okay for Russia to be involved in the manner it has (as Senator Lugar pointed out, Russia signed a treaty promising not to compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the mid nineties in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons).  What the Eastern Ukrainian militants are calling for, however, seems fair enough – namely, a referendum on the future of the region that allows for the people of the area to decide whether they want autonomy or (in some statements) independence.

Instead of advocating on behalf of the people in the region, US, EU, and Russian leaders have sought to turn Ukraine into a kind of neo-Cold War standoff.  The US and EU stand unquestionable by an unstable Ukrainian government that came to power (with some good reasons) after overthrowing a democratically-elected regime.  Russian leaders manipulate the government-dominated Russian media to spew propaganda about “Ukrainian fascists” that often sounds like its originating more from Soviet times than anything resembling modern Russia. 

Although it might put me at odds with almost everyone in the US government and most of the media, I think we should be putting pressure on the new Ukrainian government to work with the (let’s say) “separatists” to give them a greater say in the affairs of the Ukraine.  At the very least, there is probably a compromise to be reached that gives the region a lot more autonomy within a federal structure.  Unlike the faltering agreement reached this week, future negotiations should include all the interested parties and include more than vague promises to “reach out” to all Ukrainians.

In the meantime, Americans and Russians need to stop the chest-thumping and stop seeing the issue through silly one-dimensional narratives.  What’s happening is not a simple case of plucky Ukrainian Davids fighting the Russian Goliath or Ukrainian fascists persecuting helpless Russophiles. The West is not trying to dominate Russia and Putin is not Hitler.

In the end, however, the situation is a common one and we will see it again – self-determination and territorial integrity will always be at odds.  In Western countries, however, greater regional minority rights and even referendums on independence are already (or fast becoming) the norm for areas like Scotland, Quebec, or Catalonia, that might want to chart their own course in the future.  If Ukrainian leaders really want their country to look to the West, maybe they should consider adopting Western understandings of peaceful self-determination.

A call for peaceful self determination in the Crimea

In response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea this weekend, Secretary of State Kerry criticized Russia saying “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.”  He had a point – invasions of one country by another are pretty rare these days. Since the mid-nineties, there have only been a handful of inter-state wars: the brutal and largely ignored war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late nineties; India and Pakistan’s clash over a bunch of snowy mountaintops in 1999; the US invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan – but that was a little more complicated); Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon; and Russia’s brief conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia.

Unlike the Cold War that dominated most of the last half of the 20th century, most of the interstate wars have been more about national interest and ethnic identity than any grand ideological narrative. In this sense, many of the recent conflicts have represented sort of a return to earlier historical habits. The Cold War focus on ideological conflict (or at least ideological justification for conflicts) was as much an historical aberration as it was some sort of progression from the Machtpolitik and more overtly nationalist conflicts of earlier times when Europeans killed one another in large numbers over the remains of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Monarchist, fascist, and communist ideologies have faded away, but nationalism remains and will continue to be the most important source of conflict in the decades to come.

One thing that has changed since the 19th century, however, is the perceived acceptability of forcibly redrawing the global map. Since the Second World War, there have been few clear-cut examples of the international community recognizing the results of such conquest. Cases like the Chinese annexation of Tibet and India’s successful support of secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan are perhaps the two most prominent examples during the Cold War years. On the whole, however, the international community has refused to recognize any challenges to the “territorial integrity” of existing countries by other countries.

During the nineties, however, the aftermath of the Cold War led both the United States and Russia to challenge global norms. Russia materially supported break-away areas of Moldova and the country of Georgia. The US led bombing campaign against Serbia led to the independence (as recognized by about half the world) of Kosovo.

In the case of Kosovo, Russia helplessly watched from the sidelines as it watched an historical ally be dismembered by the West. No wonder many Russians viewed the US as hypocritical when the US protested the later 2008 Russian conflict with Georgia on behalf of South Ossetian separatists.

In the cases I just mentioned, US and Russia were supporting the rights of  geographically concentrated minorities to govern themselves rather than be governed by what they considered a foreign people. This right to “self-determination” is also a throwback to the 19th century when it became the primary justification for many of that century’s wars. These types of conflicts, which many modern day liberals look upon with horror, were fought in the name of what was originally called “liberal nationalism,” whose Lockean “consent of the governed” and “social contract”-based justifications would be familiar to many Americans today.

There is no easy answer to juggling the competing ideas of “self-determination” and “territorial integrity.”  Supporting the first without regard to the second opens a whole Pandora’s Box of potential conflict. Supporting the second without regard to the first ignores the legitimate aspirations of peoples to govern themselves. Trying to square the circle with complex agreements for limited self-rule often leads to gridlock and discontent all around, such as the modern day case of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Russians have a point too, however. Whatever competing historical justifications might be presented by either side, the majority of the people of the region prefer to be governed by Russia just as the majority of the people in Kosovo, Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia, and Kashmir assert their self-determination. The international community, led by the UN, should work harder toward encouraging states to peacefully grant succession to well-defined areas where the people vote to do so.

If we want to move past the conflicts of the past, there needs to be a push for global norms that de-emphasize lines on the map while continuing to emphasize a prohibition against forcible changes. This year the people of Scotland will get to choose whether they remain part of the United Kingdom. The Quebecois have received a similar option in Canada in the past. Puerto Rico has gotten to vote on remaining part of the US, and I don’t see why a state like Texas shouldn’t be allowed to secede if the people there so chose.

In the 19th century, land meant wealth. It meant food, resources for industry, and populations that could be recruited into the military. In the future, land means less and less in terms of national wealth. Knowledge and information are the resources of the future. Mini-states like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have populations that are quite well-off and secure.

So, let the people of the Crimea be ruled by whomever they so choose. Historical narratives about who rightfully owns what are no reason to hold onto a people who live where they do through no choice of their own and want a more representative government. If we want to move away from the past, we need to stop using it as a justification for violence.

How student evaluations are harming liberal education in America

I’ve never been a big fan of student evaluations since many of the students in the first class I ever taught at a university decided to write that mine had been the worst class they had ever taken and that I ought to be fired for crimes committed against academia.  Despite possibly gaining a permanent chip-on-my-shoulder against the wealthy late-teen demographic, I have to admit that those evaluations encouraged me to think about how I was teaching (and probably closed a few doors to me in subsequent job applications).

Although my experience is that subtle and constructive commentary are somewhat a rarity on student evaluations (most of the comments on the free response portion, positive and negative, are pretty much of the caliber you’d find on a YouTube video), students are, in theory, in the best position to offer useful feedback about a course after having just experienced it for 50+ hours over several months.  And, occasionally, a good comment has led me down newer and better paths in teaching.

The problem, however, is not the emotional body-blow that some nasty comments engender – at least these tend to be offset by the students who take the time to write kind “that-a-boys,” but, rather, how many faculty and administrative-types use 5-point average bubble scores denoting, à la Bill and Ted, how “excellent” their professors and courses are.   My university, and I’m sure many others, use the IDEA form, which can be seen here (this is what the professors get back – our report card and pretty much a lot of what our teaching life comes down to).

Most students don’t realize how central those evaluations are to the careers of the professors they are rating.  After all, they are pretty much tasked to give an impressionistic “grade” in the final minutes of some class at the end of the semester.  How much weight could a moment filling out a bubble carry?

It turns out at many universities the answer is – a lot. Attempting to emulate the trends of public schools and business, most university departments rank pay increases each year according to “merit” (tenure-track faculty go through this – adjuncts just don’t get rehired).  In some places, scholarship – publishing and such – plays a large role.  In other schools that consider themselves more teaching-oriented merit pay hinges largely on whatever information is available to indicate better or worse teaching.  Administrators usually lean heavily on the “objective” teaching evaluation numbers to determine these rankings.  Considering that raises are general computed on an annual percentage basis that compounds in future years, one early bad evaluation can cost the recipient thousands of dollars over their career.  Continually being “outperformed” by one’s peers – tens of thousands of dollars.

The situation is mostly the same when faculty members get together in small groups to discuss the tenure prospects of their colleagues.  Tasked with evaluating the teaching effectiveness of their colleagues and determine whether they can retain their job, they have to work with the information they are given.  Everyone wants to be fair-minded and objective – so, the tendency is to consult the big, bold teaching evaluation numbers first.  At my university, the requirements for the tenure dossier asks the candidate to compile a handy chart so the numbers are easily accessible.  At least in the case of tenure applications a faculty member is able to provide other, supplemental materials to establish their teaching cred.  In the end, however, no one is likely to be impressed by thought-provoking class activities or a well-designed syllabus for a class that has sub-par student evaluations.

Of course if a professor is denied tenure in whole or part due to below-average teaching evaluations – good luck finding another job! Most academic positions receive dozens, if not hundreds of applications – and most ask to see those teaching evaluation numbers.  In many cases, particularly the more liberal artsy kind of “teaching schools,” an applicant would be better off having a few tenths of a point better average on teaching evaluations than they would a page of publications – especially if they fall on the wrong side of the magic number “4.0,” which represents around the average value of the typical teaching evaluation.


All of this is fine and good if student evaluations of professors reward the good and weed out the bad.  We live in a meritocratic country and academia is not a place you want to make a living if you are averse to competition.  So, the questions remains, how much do student evaluation really reflect the goal of “teaching effectiveness” they are used to measure?

Given the simple purposes to which student evaluation averages are put, the answer to the question is extremely complex. The human tendency, of course, is for professors with high evaluations to pat themselves on the back for all their talent and hard work and to recognize the keen insight and good judgment of their students while those with lower evaluations just kind of suffer quietly with their low self-esteem.  Either way, most faculty, in my experience have been thoroughly acculturated and institutionalized with the idea that student evaluation scores and teaching effectiveness are interchangeable terms.

Hundreds of scholarly articles have been written on the question of what factors influence student evaluation.  The large majority explore factors completely unrelated to teaching effectiveness, such as those cited in this short piece that references 15 research findings of ways to improve student evaluations in manners that one would expect to mostly be related only tangentially to teaching outcomes.

The most valid way to answer whether teaching effectiveness and student evaluation scores are related is to conduct an experiment that holds non-teaching factors (such as class times and most importantly, course material) equal and then compares the performance of students in difference faculty classes with the student evaluations those faculty receive.

Fortunately, this experiment has been conducted several times, for instance in classes with multiple sections with different instructors and standardized testing at the end.  I mention the results of a “meta” study in my recent book that reports that research, on average, finds that about 20% of the variation in student performance is reflected in different teaching evaluations.  This source mentions 16%-25%.  Thus, while it is fair to say that student evaluations are related to teaching effectiveness, probably at least 75% of what they reflect are other factors unrelated to teaching effectiveness.

If variations in student evaluations are 75% “something else,” what are the implications?  Beyond the issue of fairness, does it matter that faculty with average student evaluations in the high 4s are consistently deemed more effective teachers than those in the high 3s?  After all, student satisfaction certainly plays a role in student decisions like continuing to pursue a field and, perhaps more cynically, later donate money to their alma mater.

The main problem is that the manner in which student evaluations are used creates perverse incentives for faculty members that can actually reduce learning outcomes in the classroom.  I’ll not soon forget a conversation I had last summer when a faculty member at my university gave a talk to a group of us who were training to be better at incorporating technology into the classroom setting.  The conversation went something like this:

Faculty member: “After I introduced an interactive online component to the class, the students came in better prepared and more willing to talk about the material.  I could tell they really got things in comparison to earlier semesters.  The bad thing, though, was that my student evaluations actually went down right before I went up for full professor.  I would hesitate to do it again.”

Me: “So, just to be clear, you believe the learning outcome was better, but your evaluations went down?”

Faculty member: “Yes.  And when you go up for full professor you really want to be a perfectionist.

Another example is a study mentioned recently in the New York Times that revealed that (surprise!) frequent quizzes improve student learning.  What caught my attention, though, was the quotation by one of the authors which stated: “Sam and I usually get really high course evaluations . . . these were the lowest ever.”  Depending on how those evaluations are used at the researchers’ university, they may have to make the same choice facing instructors at institutions across the country every day: namely, should I encourage student learning or pursue enlightened self-interest?

Another set of questions involves whether basing important decisions on student evaluations is associated with grade inflation and the dumbing down of course content.  It’s unclear if students actually respond to instructors who consciously (or I think often unconsciously) grade a bit easier or require less thinking and effort, but it is clear that faculty often believe this to be the case (see this recent survey).  Such a perception among faculty is enough to suggest a problem almost certainly exists.

If curriculum’s are being “dumbed down,” that fact seems to be reflected in a bombshell study that came out in 2011 suggesting that students tend to make very little progress in critical thinking skills during their time at college.  The same types of courses that help students become better thinkers are often the same types of courses that those institutions – “liberal institutions” – specialize in.  They are also the same types of institutions that rely heavily on teaching and all-too-often the student evaluations that go along with assessing the quality of that teaching. An analogy was recently drawn by a writer in the Wall Street Journal who compared the student evaluation process to what would happen if restaurants gave health inspectors grades.  Suffice it to say, I don’t think people would want to eat out as often.

The problem for the country as a whole is that the misuse of student evaluation of teachers takes place almost everywhere. Colleges and universities compete with one another for students and people tend to judge their academic experiences in many classes based on how much they enjoyed themselves.  If colleges want to compete, they have to, like any other enterprise, give the consumers what they want.

Many of our present and future leaders have graduated from colleges that have conducted operations informed by the goal of maximizing student satisfaction.  They govern our lives without having really been challenged in a way that would later help them weigh evidence and understand complex issues like global climate change or fiscal policy.  The country and the world is and will be the worse for it.  All because of a little bubble sheet.



My 2014 predictions

It’s a new year, and if you’re like me, you like reading all the top 10 prediction lists for 2014.  Some of them of pretty hair-brained but others, like this one, are full of fascinating insights of what’s in store.

My past predictions for 2012 and 2013 were hardly fearless – but they did have the virtue of being right about 70% of the time.  So, without further ado, here are my predictions for 2014:

1). Congressional Predictions: Republicans almost gain control of the Senate, but fall short with 50 seats (giving the Vice President the tie-breaking vote).  House elections edge in a Republican direction, with about 240 seats taken and the Democrats getting about 190.  Criticism of Obamacare will continue to be a successful issue for Republicans, but the faster pace of economic growth in 2014 will somewhat offset the loss of public confidence.

2). Obamacare will still be a lightning rod, as its main flaw becomes evident – namely, the “mandate” is too weak and initial penalties for not buying health insurance do little to incentivize the young and healthy to do so.  This will change in coming years as those penalties increase — if the law lasts past 2017.  By the end of the year, though, things will still look rough.

3). Republicans don’t even pretend to not raise the debt ceiling this year.  They learned their lesson, right?  If political shenanigans and economic  know-nothing-ism don’t damper economic growth, then. . .

4). The best end-of-the-year estimates will suggest that US economic growth was about 3% for 2014, somewhat higher than initially projected by most economists.  Unemployment will be down to about 6.3%.  The median income of Americans will, however, stays pretty much the same as always.

5). Immigration legislation still doesn’t pass. Minimum wage legislation goes nowhere. Does anyone even remember when Congress passed a big bill?

6). Under pressure by insiders (mainly poor Joe Biden), Hillary Clinton will announce her intentions in December. Everyone will be shocked when she decides she’s had enough politics and declares her intention not to run (okay – so I’m going out on a limb on this one).

7). Fighting is still occurring in Syria, but the outlook is more hopeful as less-radical rebels break the back of more radical Islamists .  The government will have the upper hand over every group, but serious negotiations will be taking place.  Terrorist bombings against civilians in marketplaces and religious centers, however, will become more common.

8). The Iraqi government tries to take a hands-off approach to areas now dominated by Islamist militants.  It backfires as the militants brutalize the civilian population and use the area as a staging ground for attacks elsewhere.

9). Negotiations often have a way of breaking down in the final days, but I’m going to say that the US and Iran strike a nuclear deal that includes frequent and expanded inspections of enrichment facilities.  Congressional Republicans attempt to enact new sanctions out of frustration with the agreement, but will ultimately be unsuccessful.  Comparison’s of President Obama’s foreign policies to Jimmy Carter’s become more frequent.

10). Thailand’s military takes over amidst chaos surrounding elections.  The Powerpoint slide I use for Thailand in my World Regional Geography class has three bullets. Once bullet says Buddhist and another says Political Instability.   I don’t remember what the third thing is.

11). China’s economy does worse than expected and protests increase.  President Xi of China is attempting to reform China’s myriad economic and governmental difficulties.  If he fails, however, historians may view him as China’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

12). Google glasses and smart watches will become mainstream by the end of the year.  People will take to the watches much more, because Dick Tracy was cooler than Clark Kent.

13). Pope Francis’ increasing popularity leads several well-known celebrities to publicly make a big deal about converting to Catholicism.

14). And. . . finally . . . the Academy Award for the year goes to . . .

12 Years a Slave, a movie I wish I’d gone and seen the evening I made the mistake of seeing Thor 2.  My personal choice of the movies I saw, despite its head-scratching flaws, was Gravity.  As for 12 Years a Slave, it probably doesn’t hurt that Deon Cole may have had Hollywood’s relationship to African-Americans pretty much right. . .

So, there we are, 14 predictions for 2014.  Keep tuned in this year – with well over a thousand views this past year, not to mention my book project being done, I feel a bit of pressure (in a good way) to post more regularly in the year to come!