By Taylor Marvin
The best links of the week:
By Taylor Marvin
UCSD is home to world-class faculty doing groundbreaking research in a dizzying variety of fields. However, many UCSD students are unaware of the work their professors do outside the classroom, and are often completely ignorant of research going on in departments outside their own. This post is the start of a series where Prospect Blog will interview UCSD professors, discussing their work, intellectual interests, and advice for students. While Prospect is a journal of international affairs, I intend to host professor from a variety of academic fields with research relevant to the international community. For this first installment, Prospect sat down with political science professor Dr. Darren Schreiber .
Prospect: You once worked as a practicing lawyer. What motivated you to make the shift into academia?
Dr. Schreiber: Being a lawyer wasn’t that interesting.When I was 23 and was still in law school I had a three day jury trial on a constitutional law issue in a federal court, and it was really cool. What I realized as soon as I graduated law school and actually started working as a lawyer was that that experience when I was 23 would probably never happen again, and I’d already done the most exciting thing I would ever do in a legal career. After practicing for a year and having tried a bunch of different aspects of law — the firm that I was in was a general practice law firm, so I got to do everything from worker’s comp cases all the way up to multi-million dollar corporate litigation and wrongful death cases and everything else in between — I realized was that every evening when I was coming home from my work I would be essentially doing what I’m doing now. I’d be reading the kind of things that were very interesting to me, things that were a mix of social science and science and a variety of other things. I wasn’t coming home and wanting to read more law. When I started off my PhD program, while introducing everyone to the program my dissertation adviser said that if you don’t go to bed at two in the morning wishing that you could do more political science then a PhD probably isn’t for you, because you’re not going to get paid the amount of money you could make elsewhere, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of work, you’re not going to have any job security, all of these other things that you might get in other careers with that level of effort and everything else. You have to do it because you just love it.
Prospect: Do you find your training as a lawyer helpful in your career now as an academic?
Dr. Schreiber: What I tell to my undergrad classes is that being a lawyer, in your first year in particular, is learning how to think like a lawyer. In particular, lawyers are taught a method called IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. The idea is that you learn how to identify what problem you are facing, identify what rules or principles you should use to solve that problem, identify how to apply the rule to the problem, and then finally how to draw conclusions from it. It’s a very structured way of thinking through a problem, and I think it’s very valuable. One of the other positive things that came from being a lawyer is that I was trained to see things with both the law and the facts simultaneously. Most of academia is divided between people who are talking about empirical, positivist sort of research, saying what can we measure and what can we test — the fundamental metrics of what exists in the world — rather than thinking about what ought to be the moral principles and guiding philosophies behind the way things are. Many in academia are very unwilling to cross that line and connect ought to is. But being a lawyer you realize that you just have to do that, because there’s no other option. In law, the way that our legal system is set up, every case has to be decided in relation to a particular legal context, and you can’t have the courts making legal pronouncements unless it’s in the context of a particular case. The facts and the law go hand in hand, and that’s very much influenced the way I think about the problems that I’m facing- not just in the questions of empirical measurement and quantification but really trying to get a sense of what should we do with this. How does this change the world that we’re looking at? I’m fascinated by the core scientific ideas that I get to explore, but I’m also just really interested in how they practically apply, and what to do with them. That goes back to the idea of IRAC. When I’m interacting with students, writing exams, or designing paper topics I’m constantly trying to get my undergrad students to take these theories from a political psychology class and think how you would use them in another context outside of the classroom. I think that this approach comes from my legal training.
Prospect: You specialize in neuropolitics. What can you tell us about this field, and what motivated you to specialize in it?
Dr. Schreiber: When I was a law student I was reading Scientific American because I was very bored with the things that I was reading for law school, and I found myself reading an article about some of the very first uses of brain imaging to study how people think about problems. As researchers were designing these studies, what they would do was have someone in the scanner doing a task they had never done before, and once out of the scanner they would have the subject practice the task a bunch of times until they became very good at it. After, they would brain image them again to see what had changed in their brain after they had practiced this task. When I first started in the PhD program at UCLA, we were talking about all this research showing that people who know and people who don’t know about politics fundamentally think differently about politics. I just asked what’s differently? If there’s all this evidence to suggest that people who really know a lot about politics and are engaged in thinking about politics in a different way, shouldn’t we be able to brain image them and see if there really is a difference between political sophisticates and novices? And so that led me into doing this work, and I got some initially interesting results. My dissertation adviser had had the idea to use response times — how long people take to answer political questions — and we found people to be answering the questions much more quickly than the traditional interpretation would suggest. Political sophisticates would answer questions very quickly because they’d practiced them, and that political novices would take longer because they had to think about the questions, and that they were effortfully trying to do so. The traditional literature suggested that people that knew a lot about politics were engaging in this very deep pontification about these issues, and that people who didn’t know much about politics were just guessing. But they weren’t. People that didn’t know much about politics were trying to answer these questions, and were spending a lot of time trying to do so.
Prospect: What can you tell me about your current research efforts?
Dr. Schreiber: What I’m working on right now is basically a summary of the last ten years of my career, trying to put all of this together in a more coherent story.The story is that we have a brain built for politics, and that the human brain evolved for politics and not to make tools. That theory — man the toolmaker — is one of anthropologists’ earliest theories to explain the huge size of the human brain, which far bigger as a percentage of body mass than any other animal. Our brain consumes a huge amount of our calories; of the smoothie that I ate this morning about a third of the calories are going to go to feed my brain, which is really expensive evolutionarily. So why spend that much on the brain? What does it get us evolutionarily? Well, the toolmaker theory doesn’t work because tools don’t show up at the correct moments in the archaeological record. We’re using tools at some points and then we’re not using them quite as much, and the during the same period the brain expanded in a dramatic fashion. The evidence seems to suggest that the reason that we have the brains we have is to solve the problem of being social animals, and a particular kind of social animal. Ants are social animals- they have very complex supercolonies, one of which is believed to stretch from Canada all the way to Mexico. So while these are really massive, complex societies, what they don’t do is have shifting coalitions. The way that most researchers talk about the development of the human brain was originally titled the Machiavellian hypothesis, suggesting that we think in these kind of Machiavellian ways to strategize about how to interact with each other. However, people became concerned about this title because it inferred a kind of nefariousness, because we associate Machiavelli with a kind of sneaky, underhanded kind of politics. This doesn’t seem to be what’s underpinning the brain, so recently we’ve been terming this core idea the social brain theory.
But we’re not just social. I think that was really driving the evolution of human beings towards the kind of brain that we have is the problem of coalitions. When an individual tries to decide whether you are an us or are you an them, this is a very complex question for humans because while you can be an ally now you might become and enemy, or you might be an enemy but you might be the enemy of my enemy so now you’re my friend. We’re constantly having to make calculations about whether someone is an enemy or a friend, and how much we should compete or cooperate with them, and for humans these are incredibly complex calculations. What we’ve seen is that as human societies have became more complex is that we’ve had a corresponding increase in complexity of the brain. Essentially I’m arguing that the human brain is built for politics. In contrast to the earlier literature that tried to distinguish between people who knew about politics and people that didn’t and treated the people that didn’t follow politics as if there was something fundamentally wrong with them — there’s a lot of literature in academia that terms these people as being dunces or morons — my research suggests that we are all by nature political sophisticates, and that Aristotle got it right. Man is by nature a political sophisticate, which means that even people who don’t pay attention to national politics or vote are still very sophisticated about their office, family or church politics and that we all live as political animals. My current book project is to try to understand the neural mechanisms that people use to think as political animals, and to understand how this shapes political phenomenon. A big part of my argument is that, rather than the rational choice model that sees people as individualists calculating their own utility functions, we are all fundamentally social creatures, meaning that I also consider your utility as well as my own and I’d like to increase both if I can because I benefit from the well-being of all of us. This brain that thinks in coalitions also allows us to think in terms of what moral sentiments we’d like to have towards whom, so if I’m trying to figure out if you’re an us or a them I use different neural mechanisms to think about moral calculations. Do I use a sort of what’s described as a deontological Kantian framework that implies I should never ever push you off a bridge if you’re a friend of mine, versus a kind of utilitarian calculation that says I’d sacrifice one person to save twenty five? Depending on whether you’re judged as an us or a them we make different calculations, and use different neural mechanisms in each of these instances. Knowing this helps to unwrap some of the puzzles we’ve seen in human behavior, and gets us a more fundamental understanding of human politics.
Prospect: Do you see any fundamental difference between the way that humans consider national politics and how we consider every other social interaction?
Dr. Schreiber: I think that largely what we’re doing when we think about national politics is that we’re taking these tools that we use for everyday politics and we’re using them for a particular context. This is a bit different, because national politics are so much more abstract. I’ve never met these people, and disagreeing with them doesn’t have the same consequences as disagreeing with a friend. But I think the brain mechanisms that we’re using are the same.
Prospect: You’re a member of the political science department at UCSD, but your work incorporates a good deal of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Do you ever find that difficult in any way?
Dr. Schreiber: It creates challenges. It’s not obvious where to publish, and when I’m going to give a talk on my research I never can assume that people know what I’m talking about. That’s a challenge, but it’s also provided a lot of opportunities for me. When I’m working on the book it’s important for me to be aware if I’m explaining everything, so that if a political scientist is reading it it’s clear what the neuroscience is all about, and I think that it forces me to explain myself better. But when I’m interacting with neuroscientists it also forces me to understand the limitations of the brain. I think that — as much as I’m making a pitch to political scientists that they need to understand the brain — for every political philosophy going back thousands of years there’s been an understanding of what human nature is, and neuroscience and genetics is helping us to fundamentally understand that human nature in a different way. Similarly, political scientists have been trying to understand human nature for a very long time, and I think that we have a comparative advantage in that we’re studying human nature in the context that human nature developed. Understand humans as political animals changes the kind of questions that a neuroscientist would ask. One of my favorite analogies is if I take a pigeon and a rat, and I train them to both push levers — which neuroscientists and psychologists have done for a long time — we can learn all sorts of things about stimulus response function. But if we take rat and a pigeon and push them off the edge of a table two very different things happen, because they’re not the same thing. They’re not both merely lever pressers, they’re creatures that developed in two very different evolutionary contexts and have a range of different faculties available to them. Human beings are to politics what pigeons are to flying, because human beings developed in the context of politics, and if we want to understand the human brain more effectively we need to understand how it evolved to solve the problem of politics. The idea that we’re hardwired for something is highly problematic, even though many people assume that neuroscience and genetics claim that humans are hardwired for certain tasks. But my argument is that we’re hardwired to not be hardwired, and that the incredible advantage that we get as being humans is that we’re constantly having to evaluate the question of are you an us or are you a them in these constantly shifting conditions, and that means we have to be constantly flexible. What we see in the human brain is tremendous flexibility. We can do experiments where we blindfold a seeing person and teach them to read braille, and they’ll learn to read braille using their visual cortex. So you’re reading braille using your fingers, but instead of it being read in the motor part of your cortex where you would expect it’s being done in the visual cortex. But if we take the blindfold off the activity shifts back to the motor cortex. That’s fascinating, that the brain can switch that quickly to move a cognitive process from the visual area to a motor area and back, all in the span of a week. That’s absolutely incredible. If I teach you to juggle I can brain image you now and watch as your brain changes over the next six months, and if I tell you to stop juggling the areas that grew while you were practicing everyday will atrophy over the next six months. Similarly, the wiring in the brain will change — we can observe the white matter changing as well — showing that there is a tremendous level of neural plasticity that allows the brain to reconfigure itself constantly. It’s not that you have a brain that you were given at age twenty and it just deteriorates until you die, which the older, pre-neural plasticity of the mind said, but that your brain is constantly adapting. And the reason we have that neural plasticity is that we’re political animals that evolved in these constantly shifting coalitions. I think that the advantage of being a political scientist is to be able to study the brain in that context.
Prospect: Do you think that there’s any useful comparisons between human politics and the political analogs of our closets relatives, namely chimpanzees?
Dr. Schreiber: Yeah. When we look at chimpanzees there’s tremendous parallels to our own politics. What’s interesting is to not just look at chimpanzees, but to look at bonobos, orangutans and gorillas as well. Orangutans will often live as solitary animals, and for a while they seemed as sort of an exception to this kind of social intelligence hypothesis. But it turns out they live as solitary animals in resource-poor environments for survival reasons, and they actually thrive quite well in groups. Bonobos and chimpanzees are differentiated by the ways that they resolve conflicts. Chimpanzees tend to be much more aggressive and violent, and bonobos tends to be much more sexual in terms of their conflict patterns, though both happen to some degree in the two species. Humans tend to be a mix of both. We’re not nearly as promiscuous as bonobos, and we’re not nearly as aggressive as chimpanzees. I think that understanding our role as primates gives us some deep insights. It’s also interesting to observe that while young chimpanzees can solve technical problems with similar ability to young children, when it comes to social problems chimpanzees fail, drastically. The difference between a two year old human and a young chimpanzee is that a human child will be willing to cooperate with you, and social learning seems to be where we differ massively from our other primate relatives. As much as we’re political animals and their political animals, we’re just all that much more so.
But we also do see these coalition shiftings in other primates. There’s a famous story of a rhesus monkey colony that had existed for forty years in a very large research facility, and a group of these monkeys that had dominated the rest in a hierarchical social structure for decades. But one weekend the dominant female from that group had been taken to the veterinarian, and other members of this alpha group happened to escape the enclosure. By the time that they got back the dominant group had been overthrown, and thirty years of political stability in these rhesus monkeys was upset in a coup in the span of a weekend. All of a sudden, this very stable political order had been radically re-shifted by the leader leaving her territory for a couple of days. I see parallels to this in human society, where we see political structures that can last for thousands of years but vanish very quickly. Humans shift in our alliances very quickly, and we can see those patterns mirrored in our primate cousins.
Prospect: What advice do you have for students considering careers in academia?
Dr. Schreiber: Like I said, unless you go to bed at two in the morning wishing you could do more political science or sociology or physics you shouldn’t do it. Fundamentally, this goes to what I like to talk about in my final lecture to undergrad classes, the idea of finding your mission. There’s a tremendous body of research that shows that with 10,000 hours of practice you can become an expert at really anything. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and you can develop world-class expertise at anything you’d like, because there’s no real evidence for the existence of innate talent. It’s all about practice, and about doing the work to build skills over time. Part of this is an idea termed flow, which is a very positive emotion state that people achieve when they’re really really engrossed in something. People are most likely to be in that state of flow — to be most completely swept up into what they are doing — when they’re doing something very hard that they’re very good at. So what that entails is living life at the edge of your competence. While that’s a hard life, 10,000 hours of that and you’re a world class expert. But 10,000 hours is five years of your life, so you need to find something you enjoy. So essentially the world is your oyster, and I think that for undergraduates to lock themselves into a particular career early is problematic. I think that people should try to first find who they are. The average person will have fourteen jobs by the time they’re forty, and you have to figure that most of those jobs will never make it one to your resume. So that means that two thirds of your jobs in your future won’t necessarily lead to what you will ultimately do, but what they are valuable for is to help you figure out who you are. We now live in a world where people have the luxury to figure out who they are and what their passions are, and what’s worth 10,000 hours of their time. I think that finding your passion and living a life of flow is very much a life worth living
Note: A good introduction to neuropolitics can be found in James Fowler and Darren Schreiber’s “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”
By Taylor Marvin
Via Annie Lowrey, the Jetson family worked a total of 9 hours a week. Matt Yglesias has an interesting take on this. The Jetson’s dramatic increase in leisure time over modern Americans is presumably due to technologically driven worker productivity gains, allowing a future family to enjoy roughly the same consumption levels as today for much less actual labor. To Yglesias, this suggests an interesting tradeoff. The Jetsons have a choice between maximizing their leisure time by working less in exchange for decreased consumption, or working a normal 40 hour week and enjoying unimaginably more wealth than modern Americans.
This choice has a lot of similarities to the today’s debate over the future of Social Security. Since the 1900s, US worker productivity has increased rapidly, averaging 2.1 percent per year in non-farm business sectors since 1947, and increase in excess of population growth:
Unlike the Jetsons, American society has used this increase in productivity, and by extension income, to finance huge consumption increases. These consumption gains have been augmented by the increase in debt financing, which became much more widespread in American society after WWII. For the most part, this choice hasn’t been controversial: few Americans would want to trade increased leisure time for drastically lowered standards of living, even if the choice is technically possible. However, the current debate over raising the retirement age reflects this core tradeoff. Sometime in the next 40 years Social Security will require additional funding to remain solvent. This isn’t a serious policy challenge because Social Security solvency can be easily addressed by one of two potential changes — either the retirement age can be raised, lowering the cost of the program, or the federal government can devote more money to Social Security. This is the same basic tradeoff the Jetsons face. Americans can either use productivity gains to increase their leisure time by preserving or even lowering the current retirement age, or to finance increased consumption. On the federal level, this consumption is most evident in military spending and healthcare inefficiencies, the two largest portions of the budget aside from Social Security.
What’s interesting about this question is that, for all the alarm about rising life expectancies bankrupting Social Security, American’s real average life expectancy has risen only modestly in the last half century. Since the 1930s total life expectancy has risen considerably. However, since total life expectancy figure are heavily skewed by infant mortality this increase isn’t indicative of the percentage of the adult population that actually reached retirement age, or the age most adults could expect to die. Adult life expectancy — that is, the expected lifespan for those who had already reached adulthood — has increased only modestly since the creation of Social Security. In 1940 a 65 year old man could expect to live 12.7 more years, compared to 15.3 in 1990, a roughly 17 percent increase. Women’s adults life expectancies show higher gains: 14.7 to 19.6 in the same period. For comparison, average non-farm business productivity has risen roughly 350 percent in the same period. Consumption has risen by a similar amount.
So while American average consumption has risen drastically in the last half century, life expectancies and leisure time have not. American work more than most rich country citizens already, a trend raising the retirement age would increase:
Modern America has made the opposite choice as the Jetsons, favoring increased consumption over leisure gains. We’ll see if the eventual consensus on Social Security takes us towards or away from that imagined future.
By Taylor Marvin
The best links of the week:
By Taylor Marvin
European NATO members in combat over Libya are rapidly depleting their armament stocks and are tactically hampered by their small number of available strike aircraft. From The Washington Post:
“Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials.”
This is really just another reminder that European NATO member defense budgets are essentially optimized for nothing. If NATO is a pure defense pact tasked with defending the European continent then the UK, France, Germany and other member states all overspend on their defense budgets and could better use the money somewhere else. But if NATO is a global peacekeeping force that intervenes in foreign humanitarian crises with no direct impact on European security member states’ military spending is insufficient, because their defense budgets don’t support the requirements of fighting expeditionary wars or projecting power internationally. In many ways, major European NATO members’ preference for high but not expeditionary levels of military spending minimizes the practical returns on their defense budgets.
Update: I amended the title of this piece soon after it was posted.
By Taylor Marvin
At Democracy in America, Will Wilkinson takes the movie version of Atlas Shrugged’s release as an opportunity to examine one of Ayn Rand’s core ideas of governance: that government should not be funded by forced taxation, but involuntary donation. In Rand’s words:
“In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government—the police, the armed forces, the law courts—are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.”
Wilkinson finds this ridiculous from the standpoint of a collective action problem. In this system no citizen has an incentive to actually donate money to the government; even though everyone benefits from government services like law enforcement and judicial services, individuals would rather not pay and let their neighbors foot the bill for the government services free-riders can’t be excluded from. Similarly, even honest citizens have an incentive to not pay — if an individual rationally expects the large majority of the population to not voluntarily pay for government services then they have good reason to suspect that the total sum of donations isn’t enough to fund a bare-minimum of public services, giving them further reason not to pay. In game theory terms all players, that is everyone in society, has an incentive to defect and in equilibrium no one pays. That’s why forced taxation is the only feasible scheme to reliably fund public goods. Formal taxation seems to date back to the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom era, making it one of the oldest social institutions in organized human society, and in its 5,000 year history few human societies have found workable alternatives. For Rand’s voluntary system to work human psychology needs to be fundamentally different. It isn’t a question of altruism, but rather rationality. In a world populated by rational, self-motivated actors — that is, the individuals Rand celebrates — a donation-funded government isn’t possible.
However, let’s pretend that universal human psychology didn’t make donation-funded public services impossible. What would be in the maximum possible size of the government? From the Giving USA Foundation, total US charitable donations in 2008 amounted to $307.65, billion, or 2.2% of GDP, a percent that’s fairly constant over time. For comparison, total federal spending in 2008 amounted to $2.9 trillion, or roughly 23% or GDP. Similarly, federal spending as percent of GDP has remained fairly constant over time, fluctuating between about 20 and 26% of GDP in the last 30 years:
Assuming adopting a donation-funded government shifted all US charitable giving from NGOs and other non-profits to the federal government, federal government spending would have to shrink by roughly 90%. This reduction does not include state and local spending, a significant amount. For comparison, $305 billion budget would be enough to fund less than half of US defense spending, and nothing else:
All other government services- Social Security, medical entitlements, social and educational spending, national parks, and infrastructure spending- would not be fundable at anywhere near their present requirements under this system. Of course, this makes a lot of assumptions. Charitable giving could easily rise in the absence of taxes, but it’s equally likely that the federal government would be much less effective at attracting charity than private non-profits are today.
However, it’s worth remembering that many libertarians like Rand have dramatically lower expectations of government than most people- in their eyes, a 90% reduction in government services would not necessarily be a bad thing. To a libertarian in the mold of Rand the government’s role should be restricted to providing courts, law enforcement, and a military only sufficient for territorial defense. It’s possible a $305 billion dollar budget would be sufficient for this. US military spending could easily fall by 80% if its only role was defending the US homeland, and law enforcement and judicial expenses are insignificant when compared to total government spending. However, it’s unlikely that very many Americans would like to live in the country Rand envisions. Entitlement spending like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have been a part of the American social contract for generations. Before the advent of Social Security most American seniors not lucky enough to be wealthy lived in poverty, and many died from preventable medical conditions they couldn’t afford to treat. If the federal budget was reduced to $305 billion, living standards for vulnerable Americans like the poor and elderly would fall precipitously. While many Americans support the idea of vastly lower taxes in the abstract, it’s doubtful that they’re willing to accept a reality where a significant portion of the elderly starve.
By Taylor Marvin
Israel’s Iron Dome ballastic defense network successfully destroyed a short range rocket fired from Gaza yesterday. This is encouraging- short range ballistic defense networks have been notoriously difficult to actually build and deploy, and this type of technology, though easily overwhelmed, has the potential to greatly reduce civilian casualties in future conflicts. While the sustainability of using $50,000 missiles to shoot down $100 rockets has been questioned, a commenter at Defense Tech makes a good point- the high unit cost of ABM interceptors isn’t a bad trade when considering the medical costs of anyone unlucky enough to hit by the rockets.
By Taylor Marvin
From the BBC, at least 17 people have been killed in anti-government protests in Syria. This is troubling. It’s been credibly argued that US military aid to Egypt gave the US an indirect moderating influence over the Egyptian military, leverage strengthened by Egypt’s officer corps affinity for American university education. This moderating influence doesn’t exist in Syria. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, where the military’s unofficial governance of the country would persist even after the removal of the executive, Syrian security forces seem to be much more invested in the survival of the current government and have less incentive to depose the government in a military coup, the mechanism for regime change in both Tunisia and Egypt. This, combined with the Syrian regimes’ minority ethnic status, seems to indicate that the Syrian government faces low internal barriers to violent anti-protester measures, suggesting the situation in Syria has much more in common with Bahrain and Yemen than Egypt and Tunisia.
By Taylor Marvin
On April 4th, 28 UCSD professors and faculty published a full-page open letter in The Guardian, UCSD’s leading campus newspaper. The letter’s authors accused UCSD student organizations critical of Israel of hypocrisy — while these student groups have historically criticized Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Territories, the letter’s signatories allege that they have turned a blind eye to abuses by Arab autocratic governments. This allegation is framed in harsh terms, with signatories accusing UCSD student groups of, in effect, anti-semitism:
“On our campus the muted reaction to this volcanic eruption of civil unrest and the ensuing horrific slaughter of thousands of civilians by their own leaders has been quite revealing. Sadly, it has confirmed strong suspicions of many students and faculty that the highly vituperative activism spearheaded by the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the Arab Student Union (ASU) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and directed relentlessly against a single Mideast country, Israel, is driven less by positive impulses of fraternity toward fellow Arabs and Muslims than by hateful impulses to destroy the world’s only sovereign Jewish nation.”
This is an extremely strong allegation. For faculty members at one of the nation’s leading universities to publicly accuse students of racism is noteworthy and disturbing. However, despite their aggressive wording, the authors’ claims are unsupported, deeply misleading and intellectually dishonest.
In contrast to the letter’s claim, in January and February 2011 UCSD student organizations hosted many events and protests designed to draw attention to the humanitarian situation in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. Case in point: Prospect’s own Perspectives event on February 28th that hosted discussion and debate about the significance and future of Egypt’s revolution by a number of student and faculty speakers. While Prospect was not mentioned in the letter, Prospect’s event partners Students for Justice in Palestine and Arab Student Union were explicitly criticized.
The UCSD student body’s enthusiasm for this event could hardly be termed “a muted response.” Roughly 250 students attended this event for no academic credit:
Prospect’s event was not the only panel discussion organized by UCSD students. On February 10th the Arab Student Union, Students for Civil Rights in Iran, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Student Sustainability Collective hosted a teach-in to draw attention to the developing situation in the Arab world:
This event was organized in part by the ASU and SJP, two groups the letter’s authors specifically targets for their “highly vituperative activism.” It’s also worth remembering that the above image is from the front page of The Guardian– the authors’ allegations are specifically contradicted by the front page of the very publication they chose to publish their letter.
The authors also criticize these student organizations for alleged online inaction, specifically through social media. From the letter:
“Why haven’t the websites and Facebook pages of the MSA, ASU and SJP been abuzz with plans for social activism and moral outrage over the murder of civilians who are fighting to gain liberty in Arab countries?”
This is untrue:
Students for Civil Rights in Iran, the Arab Student Union, and Students for Justice in Palestine clearly utilized social media plan activism protesting the murder of Arab civilians fighting to gain liberty. Students for Civil Rights in Iran’s participation in this event is noteworthy: the authors do not mention this organizations’ role in anti-autocrat protests and events, because it does not fit their narrative of student organizations solely obsessed with criticizing Israel. The fact that the letter’s authors did not bother to research this unambiguously false claim is indicative of their disrespect for their readers, and cast significant doubt over the rest of their accusations.
However, one element of the authors’ argument is understandable. Justice in Palestine Week, which the letter terms a “weeklong hate-fest,” is a large event that is highly visible to the student body — displays erected by student organizers dominate Library Walk, the center of the UCSD campus. If student activities critical of Arab governments were limited to indoor events the authors’ allegations of a bias would be justified. However, this is also untrue:
Protests held on Library Walk February 2nd were attended by about 50 students — a respectable number at a largely apolitical campus- who loudly demanded the removal of autocratic leaders in the Arab world. While this event did not display the same degree of preparation as Justice in Palestine Week, this is understandable — Justice in Palestine Week is the product of months of planning by organizing student organizations, while the February 2nd protests were held only 8 days after January 25th’s ‘Day of Rage’ that sparked the revolution in Egypt.
The letter does not simply accuse student organizations of bias — in the eyes of the letter’s authors UCSD students are deliberately targeting Israel and motivated by hate:
“Or is it possible that human rights and social justice have been hijacked by these groups for use as expedient intellectual weapons in the service of a culturally driven agenda—to bludgeon the Jewish state?”
It’s hard to overstate just how strong of an accusation this is. A number of UCSD professors are unambiguously accusing their students of racism. These are words that can’t easily be taken back, and have the potential to permanently break the bond of trust between students and teachers. These serious claims require correspondingly strong support- however, the letter’s authors decline to offer evidence to substantiate their assertions, instead choosing to rely on empty accusations that hide behind their severity.
The accusations advanced in the Guardian letter fail basic investigation and are disproved by a brief examination of the same news outlet where its authors published their message. No one is disputing that Israel is a democratic nation that offers its citizens freedoms and human rights rare in the Middle East. Similarly, aspects of the authors’ allegations are valid — Justice in Palestinian week does offer “deliberately one-sided and selective information” that often neglects the deeply complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both sides’ refusal to accept the meaningful political sacrifices need to achieve peace. However, the authors’ criticism of Justice in Palestine Week’s bias ignores the deep pro-Israel bias in American culture. As of last month, 63 percent of Americans self-identified as sympathizing with Israel compared to 17 percent that identify with the Palestinians, a disparity that is increasing. Given this disparity, the biased nature of Justice in Palestine Week is not a significant threat to Israel’s perception in the United States and does not justify grossly inappropriate personal attacks on students by their professors, a serious abuse of their respected status in the eyes of their students.
However, the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are aside the point. The letter’s authors chose to spend roughly $1,000 to criticize student organizations, accusations that are clearly false and deeply unprofessional. The degree of intellectual laziness in the signatories’ argument is insulting — the letter’s authors take it for granted that readers will accept their claims, rather than undertake the very basic research needed to disprove their specific examples. This level of disrespect for the UCSD student body is not acceptable in university faculty, and its faulty reasoning is profoundly unscientific. The authors of this letter owe their students better, and as UCSD students we should demand it.
Correction: I originally wrongly cited the Feb.2 event as being attended by over 100 people. The correct number is 50, and has been corrected in the text.
Faculty signatories of the letter are listed below. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of provided contact information.
David Feifel, MD, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry: (619)543-2827, email@example.com
Joshua Fierer, MD, Professor of Infectious Diseases: (858) 552-7446, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ami Berkowitz, PhD, Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 534-5627, email@example.com
Joseph L. Witztum, MD, Professor of Medicine: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seth M. Pransky, MD, Clinical Professor of Surgery: (858) 309-7708, email@example.com
Sidney Zisook, MD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry: (858) 534-4040, firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Millstein, PhD, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: (858) 534-3096, email@example.com
Ron Evans, PhD, Professor, Department of Mathematics: (858) 534-2635, firstname.lastname@example.org
Eyal Raz, MD, Professor, Department of Medicine: (858) 534-5444, email@example.com
Gary Frost, PhD, Founding Dean, Earl Warren College
David J. Printz, MD, Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Nora Laiken, PhD, Assistant Dean for Educational Support Services, UCSD School of Medicine: (858) 534-2131, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Groisman, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 822-1838, email@example.com
Howard Taras, MD, Professor of Pediatrics: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pamela Cosman, PhD, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: (858)822-0157, email@example.com
Herbie Levine, PhD, Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 534-4844, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian G. Keating, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 534-7930, email@example.com
Neal Swerdlow, MD, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry: (619) 543-6270, firstname.lastname@example.org
Shlomo Dubnov, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Music: (858) 534-5941, email@example.com
Sonia Ancoli-Israel, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry: (858) 822-7710, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruth Covell, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine: (858) 534-4842, email@example.com
Mort Printz, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Pharmacology: (858) 534-4227, firstname.lastname@example.org
Murray B. Stein, MD, MPH, Professor, Department of Psychiatry: (858) 534-6400, email@example.com
Vitaliy Lomakin, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering: (858) 822-4726, firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel M. Tartakovsky, PhD, Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering: (858) 534-1375, email@example.com
Ivan Schuller, PhD, Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 534 2540, firstname.lastname@example.org
Yeshaiahu Fainman, PhD, Professor, Jacobs School of Engineering: (858) 534-8909, email@example.com
Daniel Arovas, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physics: (858) 534-6323, firstname.lastname@example.org