Category: Science in Wartime

The Science of Detecting Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | January 8, 2009 3:30 pm

The torture debate in the U.S. has highlighted a key paradox in American ideology: We value human rights, but we also fear outside threats, enough that we’re willing to put the rights issue aside when we want to wring truth out of a suspected Al Qaeda operative.

But what about the medical side of torture? Search magazine has a fascinating article on how doctors are specializing in torture detection, and researching how torture affects the body and mind. Specifically, writer Jina Moore profiles Rajeev Bais and Lars Beattie, two doctors at the Libertas Human Rights Clinic in Queens who provide medical affidavits for U.S. asylum-seekers who claim they were tortured in their home countries.

These affidavits hold a ton of weight with judges, and play a key role in determining whether or not asylum is granted. The reason is that Bai and Beattie can tell with relative certainty if an applicant is telling the truth about being tortured, first by interviewing and observing him, and then doing a physical exam to look for corroborating evidence—in effect, using the patient’s body to check out his story.

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MORE ABOUT: torture, war

Bad Idea of the Day: Creating "Virtual Parents" for Kids of U.S. Troops

By Melissa Lafsky | January 7, 2009 12:24 pm

baby at computerThe Department of Defense has apparently grown a conscience. After nearly six years of deploying troops to Iraq, many of them parents, the DOD is acknowledging that kids are spending years without a mother or father around. And, given that mental health issues are already taking a severe toll on Iraq vets, putting stress on marriages and disrupting lives, it’s only logical that children are getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

So, rather than oh, say, ban repeated deployments or lift stop-loss orders, the government has decided to nip the absent-parent problem in the bud by creating… computerized parents. According to a proposal solicitation (via InformationWeek) on the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Web site, the DOD is looking for a “highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with ‘virtual’ renditions of deployed Service Members.”(Insert “Hello, DAD”—”Hello, Little Dave” joke here.)

The proposal outlines the idea as follows:

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MORE ABOUT: Iraq, military

The "Dirty War Index" Shrinks Human Atrocities Into Useful Data

By Melissa Lafsky | December 17, 2008 7:21 pm

What’s worse, the genocide in Darfur or the horrors of North Korean prison camps? While the question may seem a bit like comparing global warming and the financial crisis, it can be useful to evaluate and compare all the awful things humans are doing to each other around the globe.

And in order to create an effective comparison, you need a set of objective data that can be analyzed to evaluate wars and even give direction for intervention and deterrence. While throwing around numbers like “45,000 Iraqi civilians killed” can be useful for nabbing attention, it typically does little for inspiring solutions.

With this idea in mind, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks of King’s College in London and Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway College in Egham, UK, have created a “Dirty War Index” that quantifies all of the various atrocities we commit—such as rape, civilian murder, or torture—and labels them as a proportion of the total number of incidents reported. For example, the DWI of civilian casualties would be “the number of civilian deaths divided by the overall number of mortalities in the conflict, both civilian and combatant, multiplied by 100.”

While turning carnage, beatings, and other horrors into data might sound callous, it can have major benefits as far as finding solutions in war-torn areas, says University of Toronto biostatistics professor Nathan Taback:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: data, human rights, war

Making War with YouTube: The Technology Battle in Sri Lanka

By Melissa Lafsky | December 15, 2008 6:28 pm

In the wake of near-daily scandals involving billions of dollars, it can be easy to lose sight of the rampant unrest in the rest of the world—including Sri Lanka, the small Asian nation that has been fighting a lengthy civil war. The conflict is between the government and a group of insurgents known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and while the violence has been ongoing and tragic, the fascinating aspect is how both sides are using technology to spin their actions, gain public support, and put down the other side.

Brian Calvert at World Politics Review, who is doing an investigative series on the country’s unique technological warfare, reports that releasing YouTube videos depicting things like suicide bombers has become standard practice for both parties. The government even has a headquarters for its information campaign, called the Media Center for National Security, which was established in 2006 to “disseminate accurate defense-related news within short as possible time, to both local and international media, and then at the same time to counter the LTTE propaganda.”

The insurgents, meanwhile, have formed their own technological strategy, described as follows:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: sri lanka, terrorism, war

For Psychologists, a Fine Line Between Scientific Discovery and Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | December 12, 2008 12:16 pm

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association voted (at last) to ban its members from participating in interrogations at U.S. detention centers, including the notorious Guantanamo Bay. This marked a major shift from its previous stance, which permitted work with interrogation (some of which is known in certain circles as “torture”) despite the fact that both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have banned any affiliation with the practice for years.

So what’s different about psychologists, that it took them this long to decide that participation in torture wasn’t something the field should strive for? Stanley Fish at the New York Times blog “Think Again” offers the following explanation:

One answer can be found in the A.M.A.’s explanation of its prohibition: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.” The American Psychiatric Association is even more explicit: “Psychiatrists . . . owe their primary obligation to the well being of their patients.”

Psychology, on the other hand, is not exclusively a healing profession. To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Out of a Job? Electronic Warfare Firms Are Hiring!

By Melissa Lafsky | December 10, 2008 2:42 pm

Most people peruse blogs at the office, meaning that if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you weren’t a victim of Bloody November, in which around 500,000 jobs were systematically purged from the U.S. workforce—many of them from the tech sector. But one industry that’s been hiring in droves, reports the Boston Globe, is defense contractors, particularly those focused on the latest in war technology.

The cluster of defense companies based in New England is expected to weather the downturn reasonably well, because of their tech focus:

[R]ather than building entire jets, ships, tanks, or ground installations, many of the region’s defense firms develop the electronics, combat, and communications systems they use…

Area contractors, for instance, work on electronic eavesdropping, signal processing for radar systems, and equipment used to integrate intelligence from different sources, technologies critical to helping the US military and allies battle terrorists in multiple countries.

Not that we’re suggesting qualified applicant shouldn’t jump at a well- (or any-) paying gig, but it’s worth asking: Is this really the place we want to be re-channeling our tech talent?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Second Life in Islam: Virtual Reality Hits the Muslim World

By Melissa Lafsky | December 9, 2008 4:24 pm

It’s always interesting when technology and religion/culture collide like Mac trucks. The BBC reports that Muxlim Pal, the first virtual world aimed at the Muslim community, is now live in Beta, and will officially launch in 2009.

The site, aimed at “Muslims in Western nations,” is based on the standard virtual world model popularized by The Sims and the eponymous Second Life. Each player gets an avatar that can be fitted with a number of inventory and wardrobe options including hijabs. Avatars can earn and spend currency, though the creators haven’t set up any of the money-making systems pervasive in Second Life. Each avatar multiple “meters” governing its “happiness, fitness, knowledge and spirituality that change when the character carries out tasks in the social world.”

Mohamed El-Fatatry, the founder of the parent site,, stresses that the focus of the site is not religion itself—of the 26 different content categories on the site, only one is religion. Rather, the focus is on creating a space for Muslim culture in the virtual realm:

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Weekly News Roundup: The Military Hates Whales, Warming to Bloggers

By Melissa Lafsky | November 14, 2008 8:46 am

• Transition! Transition! (Insert music here). So here’s the question of the day: Will Obama create a National Energy Council?

• Just in time for winter: A complete history of the flu through the ages.

• The military fought the whales and won.

• What, “Global Warming Poobah” was already taken? Gore offered (but turned down) job as White House “Climate Czar.”

• We can’t decide if this is heartening (drivers are being safe!) or mortally depressing: California air pollution kills more people per year than car crashes.

• A soldier-blogger gets his moment in the spotlight—though the real question is, what does he think of Trooptube?

MORE ABOUT: flu, gore, military, obama, pollution

Is War a Product of Evolution, Or Just a Flaw of Man?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 13, 2008 1:58 pm

Humans have been historically eager to kill each other. Throughout history, we’ve thought up all sorts of nutty reasons to slaughter our fellow man that had nothing to do with immediate survival of the fittest. We tend to chalk all these wars up to cultural differences fed by a species-wide need to be ideologically right (and impose that right-ness on others), along with a knack for weapons discovery culminating in a technology boom that’s constantly supplying bigger and better ways to off each other. Add governments to the mix, and you’ve got a big steaming pile of questionably necessary interspecies violence.

So it’s a little—but not a lot—surprising that the growing scientific consensus is that war not only dates back to the origins of humankind, but has also played “an integral role” in or species’ evolution. According to this theory, which emerged during a recent conference at the University of Oregon, the war “instinct” was present in our common ancestor with chimps, and has been a “significant selection pressure on the human species,” as evolutionary psychologist Mark Van Vugt put it.

His and his colleagues’ reasoning goes something like this: Evidence exists to show that war and humans have been friends since the beginning (fossils of early humans show wounds consistent with combat injuries). As such, we would have evolved “psychological adaptations to a warlike lifestyle.” To this end, researchers have presented “the strongest evidence yet that males—whose larger and more muscular bodies make them better suited for fighting—have evolved a tendency towards aggression outside the group but cooperation within it.”

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MORE ABOUT: human nature, war

Over a Year After YouTube Ban, Military Launches "TroopTube"

By Melissa Lafsky | November 12, 2008 3:58 pm

military TrooptubeRemember when the military announced it was cutting off troops’ access to YouTube, MySpace, and other video-uploading sites because of bandwidth and “security” problems—i.e. they were worried about videos like this getting uploaded and watched around the world? Well, now it seems they’ve reconsidered that decision—sort of.

Now, the military is launching its own user-generated site, called “TroopTube” (insert joke here). While registration is required, it allows members of the armed forces, along with their families, to gain a password and start uploading content. The site can also be accessed by civilian Defense Department employees and “supporters,” whatever that means.

So given the restricted access to the site, will troops be free to upload anything they like?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
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