About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Michael’s Picks

By Michael De Dora
* Another WikiLeaks release sheds light on U.S. diplomatic efforts worldwide. What do you think: are the leaks justifiable? Are they doing more good than bad, or vice versa? Or should the information come out regardless of the consequences? 
* Another brilliant piece from The Onion: “Courageous Man Refuses to Believe He Has Cancer.” Perhaps the best line: “I didn’t take even a single vitamin. Not even medicine, because, you know, medicine is what sick people take.”
* An Indianapolis father claims his visitation rights with his children were cut because he is an agnostic. This is clearly wrong, but something just seems missing here.  
* A wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills dropped a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers went on to win the game. The receiver’s reaction: God, why did you do this to me?
* Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, and Simon Blackburn sit down with Roger Bingham for a conversation about science and morality. It is absolutely worth your time (for the record, I find myself siding with Blackburn and Singer).
* Slate.com’s Alison Gopnik reviews neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s new book, “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Mind.” 
* Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair debated Christopher Hitchens on whether religion is a force for good. Video is here; a transcript is here.
* I’ll be discussing the relationship between science and religion at SkeptiCamp NYC 2010 this Saturday. I’ll post presentation materials at some point. 


  1. Hell yes the leaks are justifiable! Greenwald has some excellent post defending Wikileaks, he says it better than I ever could.


  2. What do you think: are the leaks justifiable? Are they doing more good than bad, or vice versa? Or should the information come out regardless of the consequences?

    The solution is quite simple: you can avoid having information about your assassinations, corruption or fraud leaked by not being murderous, corrupt or a fraudster. Or in other words: why should the logic of "the innocent have nothing to fear" only apply to Joe Average, but not to governments or companies?

  3. Also regarding Wikileaks. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the establishment media, pundits and from politicians. Yet its quite instructive that Defense Secretary Gates has made the statement that yes, it is embarrassing for the government, but nothing catastrophic will come from the leaks as far as govt. to govt. relations are concerned. And the Pentagon has yet to point to any case of the leaks actually leading to the death of anybody, despite all this bullshit about "Wikileaks has blood on its hands." And of course this claim is very ironic considering who really has blood on their hands.

  4. Some clarification from Derek Araujo on the Indianapolis father situation:

    "It is unclear from the court papers what role Mr. Scarberry's religious views played in the court's decision to strip him of joint custody of his children. At a minimum, however, it was improper for Pancol to reference his religious beliefs in his order."


  5. @Sheldon, thanks for the link. I quite like Greenwald.

  6. I haven't read much into the latest Wikileaks release other than what's been reported in the NYT and NPR. Nevertheless, I have a couple initial opinions that are, of course, subject to revision:

    1. Nothing strikes me as terriblly damaging or insightful. Foreign leaders and dignitaries must expect that they are disparaged privately and only respond publicly to save face.

    2. That said, I don't much care for Assange and his Wikileaks colleagues. They claim that the leaked documents will reveal some grand truth that will end wars and so forth. Yet none of their leaks have surprised anyone abreast of the situations and thus, shouldn't really change anyone's opinion. In the latest case, I find it especially odd that they would release documents with the intent of damaging US diplomatic relations. Afterall, diplomacy is the peaceful alternative to war. Why would someone dedicated to ending war try to thwart US capability of dealing with international issues, such as Iran's nuclear buildup, in peaceful fashion?

  7. This is probably too simplistic (but hey, I'm not profound!), regarding the WikiLeaks bruhaha: if you don't lie, then what have you got to hide? Then again, I always maintain that we're all inoccent until shown otherwise, and unless there's some probably cause airport pat-downs, wire taps, etc, are wrong. (They don't work, as the terrorists know what we're doing, we advertise it!)

    So, I guess, if you're an individual, you have a need and a right to privacy, until there's some good cause for the state's policial bodies to invade that privacy. But if you're a state, then you don't have human or other rights as such. So, perhaps states (plus companies and religions) don't have a right to privacy and presumption of innocence. I'd like to live in a country where my government had nothing to hide. I know I don't, because my government has signed on to such modern westerns as 'Fort Bagdad', 'The good, the bad, and Halliburton', 'Once upon a time in Afganistan'.....They were all bad guys, so the lies are OK.

    By the way, I misused a few Sergio Leone titles, but I love his work!

  8. The naivety about the Wikileaks question is staggering! Does anybody here seriously think that there is NO legitimate reason for governments to keep secrets from each other and from the public?

    This article does a good job of getting across what's potentially at stake. Of course, none of us know who, exactly, will pay for the information being released by Wikileaks, which is sorta the whole point.

    In the words of Graham Greene, "innocence is like a leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm."

  9. Chris,

    I wouldn't be so distracted by the MSM's portrayal of Assange or Wikileaks. Ultimately its irrelevant. And I doubt the Wikileaks people actually believe there is any one grand truth found in the docs. that is going to end war.

    Regarding the claim that there is nothing new in Wikileaks, Greenwald at the end of his most recent post has a list with links of items that has not been well reported on.

    Besides, just like any other type of evidence, the evidence is cumlative and adds detail and further verifies things that have been partially known.

    I encourage people to look at what is actually being covered from the leaks and ask themselves if the govt. has the right to act in our name to do such dastardly deeds.

    Regarding diplomacy, The State Department actively harassed and intervened in the govts. and judiciaries of countries such as Germany and Spain on investigations into acts against those countries' citizens, kidnapped innocents who were tortured, and journalists killed by U.S. forces. (Also check out recent Democracy Now! episodes).

    And what was one of the justifications for war in Iraq? To allegedly end Saddam's abuses? Then U.S. forces are told to officially ignore the torture and extra-judicial killing by the new Iraqi security forces that the U.S. organized and armed.


    If people really take democracy seriously, then they should have knowledge of what is done in their name.


    As far as I know, Wikileaks hasn't released any codes for launching nuclear weapons yet.
    Nobody argues that there aren't legit. govt. secrets. And contrary to the propaganda blabber going on, Wikileaks has redacted data.

    I will read that article though.

  10. Yes, there may be some legitimate reasons for government secrecy. But when governments become too comfortable functioning in secret, they forget they are accountable. Do those who provide information on human rights abuses deserve anonymity? Absolutely, and Wikileaks should ensure that such sources are not revealed.
    As for governments: do you honestly think the Indonesian government is unaware that foreign embassies keep tabs on their human rights violations? The Indonesian government knows that as long as trade is good, and as long as nothing is made public, then business will continue as usual. I thought the diplomat's example of East Timor a particularly poor one to make his point. There was a clear situation where western governments stood by and continued selling Suharto arms as long as we (the public) in the west didn't know about it. The genocide went on for thirty years and this diplomat believes his government cared.
    If Western governments knew they were under the watch of their citizens, they might behave more responsibly in their dealings with foreign tyrants.
    Go ahead and blast me as incredibly naive: I was saying the same thing a thousand years ago, when the barons were trying to keep the serfs in their place. (figuratively)

  11. ianpollock,

    you have lost me there. I do not see any real reason why a democratic government should have secrets; in fact, the concept of state secrets is anathema to accountability of elected officials and informed decision making by the electorate.

    Of course we are living in an imperfect world, and it would indeed be naive to assume that we can achieve total transparency. But we should not start with the position that governments ought to be allowed to lie to the people they are directly responsible to, i.e. everybody.

  12. "Greenwald has some excellent post defending Wikileaks, he says it better than I ever could. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/12/01/wikileaks/index.html"

    I think that piece has to be one of Greenwald's weakest. He first picks a very easy target for criticism, Klein and neo-cons, and points out their hypocrisy, but so what?

    Then, after acknowledging there are some disclosures he thinks, by themselves, are arguably not best public, he writes, "The real-world alternative to the current iteration of WikiLeaks is not The Perfect Wikileaks that makes perfect judgments about what should and should not be disclosed, but rather, the ongoing, essentially unchallenged hegemony of the permanent National Security State, for which secrecy is the first article of faith and prime weapon." But that's a false dichotomy; it’s not the case that Wikileaks had no option to screen better the information they disclosed. In an argument evaluating WL's actions, you have to consider the options open to them (both for consequentialist-type theories and most deontological ones). Simply because they can't be perfect doesn't mean the behavior they did wasn't (immorally) faulty. They could have been much more careful and thoughtful than they were.

    His next big point is, "It is a 'scandal' when the Government conceals things it is doing without any legitimate basis for that secrecy." Yet the specific focus of his criticism here – the "routine work" in the diplomatic cables that (he claims) don't in themselves warrant secrecy – is part of a class of communications that does have a legitimate basis for secrecy. It obviously benefits the US to have such chatter secret; sources are more forthcoming, for one thing, and it's not clear how a policy to disclose them publicly would benefit diplomatic relations. Besides, it's absolutely not clear how a policy to disclose low-level diplomatic chatter would not be something policymakers could circumvent when they wanted to.

    His last (and related) point, that government matters should be presumptively public because doing so improves democratic accountability, is ridiculously overblown. Does anyone actually believe that "everything the Government does is presumptively secret"? The government has different categories of information, and applies different presumptions to them. Where is his argument that these diplomatic cables are a category that, if they remain secret, they impede democratic accountability? And why is democratic accountability – in itself – something we should be maximizing?

    Incidentally, Greenwald's overarching theme that governmental secrecy had some major bearing on the second Iraq war is completely and totally unrealistic. That war was never about a rational evaluation of the (publicly or o/w) available evidence. It was always just cultish hysteria.

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  14. Alex SL,

    Do you know a way for a democratic government to be totally transparent to its citizens without being totally transparent to all the other governments including its enemies, or should the plans for D-Day have been made public before the Allied invasion of Normandy?

  15. Sheldon,

    It's a safe bet that either informants or suspected informants will be killed as a result of the leaks, and that informants and dissidents behind iron curtains will be more reluctant to share information with the U.S. in the future for fear of being exposed, and this will cause deaths as well.

    It's nice that Wikileaks has now decided to redact some information, but how the hell do they know what to redact? If they redact the informant's name, but not the name of the diplomat he met with, it gives detectives a big clue about the informant's identity.
    And Wikileaks knows this damn well, because they're serious about protecting their own sources.

    As if that wasn't bad enough, Assange has threatened to unlock the archive of UNREDACTED documents if he's arrested, so now he's blackmailing the government and holding informants and dissidents hostage to escape prosecution for rape.

  16. No the leaks are not justifiable. They were not restricted to exposing crime and corruption, but recklessly leak everything for sh*ts and giggles, like what some diplomat thinks about some political leader. Does anyone think it's good diplomacy to publicize what you really think of everyone? Would you tell the world what you really think of your boss or your mother-in-law?

    And Wikileaks knows damn well the importance of secrecy and deception because they themselves are a very secretive and deceptive organization. For example, Assange repeatedly denied receiving the classified cables before publishing them.

    I remember when Wikileaks started out, they promised to help political dissidents behind iron curtains safely get information out about human rights violations, which is something I could support. But I knew that they'd end up doing the opposite, targeting open societies like the U.S. to the advantage of the real human rights violators, and endangering political dissidents.

    If Yemen or Saudi Arabia will have an Islamic Revolution, you can thank Wikileaks. You can also thank Wikileaks for killing Net-Centric Diplomacy, discouraging intelligence agencies from sharing information, encouraging employers to spy on their employees, hindering cooperation between the U.S. and its allies, getting the best diplomats fired for being too honest, and getting informants killed.

  17. There seems to me a slight inconsistently in the logic of people who argue the latest Wikileaks release includes few important state secrets, yet who think we ought to go after Assange with all we've got. Is it because these people are scared that he has truly important information to share?

  18. Michael,

    The logic is that whistleblowers expose crime, corruption, and coverups, so if Wikileaks isn't doing that, then it's harder to justify the leaks.

    However, I think that the leaked secrets are important, even if the reason is not obvious to us. For example, the Yemeni President's joke about good whiskey may be funny to us, but it helps Al Qaeda spread the message that he's a bad Muslim.
    Or the allegation that China launched a cyber attack on Google is not news to us, but the revelation that this was learned from an informant could cause a purge in China.

    This also proves that the goal is to keep the information secret from foreign governments, not from the American public.

  19. Does anyone know what Assange intends to have in place of the "authoritarian conspiracy" of secret-keeping governments?

    I ask b/c I think it would be interesting to know how he justifies the leaks to himself. I read a long discussion of his ideas on e.g. zunguzungu, but while it appears Assange has given a lot of thought to how the leaks will affect the ability of governments to operate, I can't find much on what he wants to have replace them, other than something that's "open" and "just." I can't imagine he hasn't given some thought to the matter, however, since he seems to love waxing grandiose.

  20. Dang, I just lost a long written comment answering some of these comments against Wikileaks. So now I will just have to post these links.

    I have to say that some of the arguments against Wikileaks here are just really pathetic.

    Timothy, are you really not for maximizing democratic accountability, seriously? Seems to me that this is an argument against democracy itself.

    This Time interview with Assange suggests that 1 he holds no such silly beliefs attributed to him, and 2 he addresses the various legitimate security concerns of harm.


    And of course Greenwald (Tues Dec 7-8) again addresses some of these issues, many of which turn out to be baseless slander.


  21. Sheldon: "Timothy, are you really not for maximizing democratic accountability, seriously? Seems to me that this is an argument against democracy itself."

    Hardly anyone is seriously in favor of maxing democratic accountability. Rights guarantees are not democratic, for example, and you could increase "democratic accountability" by subjecting them to referenda routinely. Supreme Court deliberations, which they conduct in secrecy and keep off the record, are not democratically accountable, nor is much of the judiciary. If you really wanted to maximize democratic accountability, other values would only be instrumental to it (compare to the utility that utiitarians seek to maximize) - but the whole way we conceive of individuals and their legal rights makes them not democratically accountable (and so on for other values). Even Assange, according to your own links, doesn't seek unconstrained maximization of democratic accountability, as he acknowledges there are legitimate secrets. He cites the US constitutional framers, but they too did not seek to maximize democratic accountability - as their many restrictions on it, including long terms for Senators, show. He, unlike you apparently, would offer some defense other than a "max democratic accountability" defense.

    The Time interview, however, does not make clear what he thinks are legitimate rationales for trading off or constraining democratic accountability.

  22. Max,

    that is quite overblown. So far the sky is not falling; and if your main objection to leaks like these boils down to the informants not being well enough protected, then there is not much to discuss. I would presume everyone to agree on that, but that is not what WikiLeaks is persecuted for.

    But I knew that they'd end up doing the opposite, targeting open societies like the U.S. to the advantage of the real human rights violators

    This argument, which also comes in the form of "why do you always criticize Western policy, but not our enemy's" really ticks me off. First of all, it is obvious that an openly militaristic dictatorship does dirty things. Everybody knows that. Our media constantly report about their misdeeds, not least because our governments pursue interests opposed to those governments. What not everybody wants to see, what our media do not report enough, is that Western governments claiming the high moral ground also do dirty things. Meaning that there may be no moral high ground to be claimed in the first place, but issues like that - e.g., where is the difference between (1) locking somebody up in Guantanamo for nine years without evidence, due process and legal recourse and (2) what happens to dissidents on the rest of the very same Caribbean island - is another discussion.

    Secondly, you swipe before your own door first before screaming at the neighbor to keep his footpath clean. If you are a Westerner, it is your first duty as a citizen to keep the Western governments honest, lawful and democratic. What use is it to restrict yourself to complaining that Terroristan is a murderous dictatorship (we know!) while you close the eyes to the fact that your own country dismantles human rights and turns into a Banana republic?

    And seriously, D-Day? You think there are no nuances between ongoing military operations on the one hand and, say, hiding info on the number of innocent civilians your misguided strategy has killed over the last eight years or so on the other?

    If Yemen or Saudi Arabia will have an Islamic Revolution, you can thank Wikileaks.

    Not trying to be mean here, but would anybody know the difference if that happened?

  23. Timothy,

    Obviously we are not talking about putting rights up to a democratic vote, your response is simply sophistry and a strawman. What we are really talking about is information on the policies of our elected government. An informed electorate.

    So what if he doesn't define exactly what a legitimate secret is? What do you want a list from that interview?

  24. Sheldon, far from sophistry, I was criticizing the logical implications of your normative premise. Your justification for making this information was that we should maximize democratic accountability, but that principle is clearly a bad idea as it has many bad implications. If you have a serious argument to make, then make it.

    If he doesn't have a principle for the issue, then he's confining the difference between legitimacy and illegitimacy to his arbitrary discretion. I doubt he's done so, as I wrote above.


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