Category: Science in Wartime

Could Twitter Be a Tool for Terrorists?

By Melissa Lafsky | October 28, 2008 3:26 pm

The Army has always been clever at thinking up all the vast and strange ways our enemies might use to kill us (or vice versa). Now Wired writes that an intelligence report is circulating containing warnings that terrorists might plan an attack using that deadliest of all technological terrors: Twitter.

The 11-page paper in question [pdf] is not solely devoted to Twitter—in total, it includes the following topics:

Pro Terrorist Propaganda Mobile Interfaces
Mobile Phone GPS for Movements, Ops, Targeting, and Exploitation
The Mobile Phone as a Surveillance Tool
Voice Changers for Terrorist Phone Calls
A Red Teaming Perspective on the Potential Terrorist Use of Twitter

In assessing Twitter’s danger to the free world, the authors note that the micro-blogging site was used as a “countersurveillance” tool by activists at the Republican National Convention, who used it to Tweet the location of local police. (What they fail to mention is that said local police could have pretty easily monitored the Tweets in question and adjusted their plans accordingly). The paper then goes on to lay out three possible “Twitter Attack!” scenarios:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

When the Economy Tanks, We Suddenly "Develop" ESP

By Melissa Lafsky | October 27, 2008 2:18 pm

If you’ve picked up a newspaper, watched a TV, or checked your 401K in the past few months, there’s a near-perfect chance that you’ve experienced the full miasma of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that accompany loss of control. We hate that feeling—it’s a trait embedded in the human condition. And we’ll go to any lengths—including “developing” the ability to talk with the dead, see invisible patterns, and read the stars—in order to avoid it.

Sharon Begley at Newsweek writes that a whopping 90 percent of Americans either think they’ve experienced a paranormal event, or believe that they can happen. And when occurrences—like oh, say, worldwide financial crises—remind us just how futile our desire for order and control really are, our “ability” to see the future in tea leaves by no coincidence begins to rise. As Begley puts it:

Historically, such times have been marked by a surge in belief in astrology, ESP and other paranormal phenomena, spurred in part by a desperate yearning to feel a sense of control in a world spinning out of control.

There’s also the study in this month’s issue of Science finding that lack of control directly increases our “invisible pattern-seeing” ability (or perception of one). People primed with a sense of powerlessness saw more images in static, found more conspiracies in written stories, and imagined more patterns in financial markets than those who were left alone.

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Medical Brain Drain Slams Iraq

By Melissa Lafsky | October 20, 2008 1:35 pm

The doctor shortage is looming in our future, and the exodus of top scientific talent out of the U.S. may be just a few years away. But imagine the scenario if you added a domestic war, ethnic violence, and an unstable (relatively speaking) government to the equation. Cue the current situation in Iraq, in which legions of educated workers—including doctors and other health professionals—are high-tailing it to safer pastures, as Newsweek reports. And who can blame them: Since the U.S. invasion began, doctors have been prime targets for violence, including assassination, ransom kidnapping, and torture.

Unsurprisingly, around 30,000 doctors, plus some dentists and pharmacists, have fled the country as a result, and despite the fact that things have calmed down since the near-chaos of 2006, only about 800 have returned. To put that number into perspective, the total population of Iraq is around 28 million, compared to over 300 million in the U.S. The expected American doctor shortage, which could be enough to throw our health care system into crisis, is projected to be 50,000 to 100,000 doctors—not that much more than what Iraq has already lost.

Then there’s the other urgent dilemma: With all the experienced doctors fleeing the country, who’s left to train the med students?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health Care, Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: doctors, Iraq

Lawrence Krauss Has Something to Say to the Next President

By Melissa Lafsky | October 17, 2008 4:33 pm

What are the three most important things the next U.S. president needs to do for science? The DISCOVER Science Policy Project gave a group of the country’s most celebrated scientists and thinkers the chance to state their views. Today, renowned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss offers an essay outlining his advice for the coming administration. All past responses can be found here.

Theoretical physicist

Memo to the Next President:

“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
—Richard P. Feynman

Eighteen years ago, the former President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, addressed the National Academy of Sciences, stating:

“Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

It is hard to find a better statement of what the relationship between science and public policy should be. Science should be a tool to help policymakers understand the world as it is, and as it might be. Science itself doesn’t tell us to how to best organize our society to maximize opportunity and happiness, but it can help inform our decision-making.

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Whales Battle U.S. Military…and (Probably) Lose

By Melissa Lafsky | October 9, 2008 1:07 pm

submarineEver since the U.K. military figured out that the sonar from submarines royally messes with whales, activists across the pond have been rushing to halt Navy exercises that may disrupt—though exactly how much, no one really knows—the marine mammals.

As they so often do, things got litigious when both the California Coastal Commission and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Navy in separate lawsuits to stop its use of sonar during 14 training exercises off the Southern California coast. Lucky for the whale-savers, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which is known for siding on the path of the less mighty) agreed with them, and smacked the Navy with restrictions on its sub exercises.

Now enter the Supreme Court, which this week heard the case on appeal. As with just about every human endeavor that harms the environment, the sonar use necessitates a balancing act between our needs—in this case, for a military that’s sharp and ready for, say, a second Pearl Harbor—and the needs of everything else.

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MORE ABOUT: military, whales

How Green Is My Army?

By Melissa Lafsky | August 28, 2008 5:14 pm

marinesIrony, meet paradox. The U.S. military, that paragon of technology-aided destruction, is setting its sights on environmental sustainability. Which isn’t a bad idea, given that the Defense Department alone uses a whopping 1.5 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. (which, until recently, was the world’s single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases).

The Environmental News Network reports that the Army has begun working to reduce the carbon footprint at its bases, and is taking measures to cut its CO2 emissions by 30 percent by 2015. Its efforts include spraying troops’ tents with foam insulation to reduce energy used for air conditioning (which, in places like Djibouti, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, can be a significant power-drain) and building combat training ranges out of recycled shipping containers.

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War and Science Don't Mix: Invasion Disrupts Georgian Research

By Melissa Lafsky | August 27, 2008 4:08 pm

warWhile Russian warships head to Abkhazia and arguments begin over who started it all, the conflict in Georgia has “paralyzed” scientific research in the country, according to Nature News. The director of the Georgia National Science Foundation said that 72 research projects, or 30 percent of all the foundation’s current work, have been halted because of the conflict.

In an example of terrible timing, the invasion hit smack in the middle of a new ramp-up in the country’s science-funding system, following a resurgence of young and skilled Georgian scientists. The GNSF had planned to double its national science budget next year, from $8 million to $16 million—which spells a lot of research and travel grants. But given the huge costs of post-war reconstruction (not to mention the hit Georgia’s economy will take from its loss of foreign investors), that money is now likely headed for recovery efforts.

Since we’re heaping on the bad news:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: russia, war

A U.S. and Russia Collision Could Spell Bad News for NASA (And Florida)

By Melissa Lafsky | August 14, 2008 3:19 pm

NASAAs diplomatic relations with Russia plummet faster than a barrel over Niagara Falls, politicians and scientists are starting to worry about the effects the frosting relationship could have on our space program. As 80beats reported, the principle concern is the Russian Soyuz vehicle, which will be the U.S.’s only means of sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station once NASA retires the space shuttles in 2010.

Replacement shuttles won’t be available in the U.S. until 2015, which means that right now access depends on a $719 million deal with Russia to purchase rides on the Soyuz through 2011. On a larger scale, we’re looking at a Russian monopoly on sending humans into space—a leverage point that may affect the U.S.’s ability to take action against the country in the next few years.

The biggest Cassandra foretelling space trouble is Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who has announced that he “fears Russia’s aggressive action against Georgia may have some serious consequences,” such as “Russia denying us rides or charging exorbitant amounts for them.” Granted, it’s worth noting that Florida houses the massive Kennedy Space Center, and the money funneled into the state for space and research operations totaled $1.68 billion in 2006. Needless to say, a significant slowdown or axing of future missions due to political deadlock will put quite a damper on his state’s economy.

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Controversial Video Games, Part II: Is "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" Dangerous?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 31, 2008 10:52 am

violent video gamesWe’ve covered the Torture Game, in which players can gratuitously torture a captive avatar to their hearts’ content. But the controversy over violent and potentially exploitative video games hit an entirely new level with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a free online game that lets players recreate the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School that resulted in 15 deaths (including the suicides of the teenage shooters).

MSNBC reports that the game “presents players with a low-res gaming experience that uses material culled from [the shooters] Eric Harris’s and Dylan Klebold’s own words, media reports and police documents.” Players are placed in the roles of the shooters and allowed to relive their last two days. No surprise, it’s sparked considerable uproar since its launch, so much so that the creator, 26-year-old Danny Ledonne, made a documentary about the aftermath.

Granted, while the Columbine game may be one of the most politically and emotionally charged, plenty of other games allow players to reenact national and international tragedies, from the JFK assassination to “September 12th,” which lets players send missiles into an Afghan Village. (For a list of these and other controversial games, go here.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Forget Al-Qaeda; Apparently It's the Aliens We Need to Worry About

By Melissa Lafsky | July 30, 2008 2:30 pm

UFOIs the U.S. military’s overdependence on radar and indifference to UFOs a weakness that could be exploited by terrorists? That’s what the New York Times is claiming in an op-ed by Nick Pope, author of Open Skies, Closed Minds and the former head of UFO investigations for the British Ministry of Defense. Pope argues that NASA and the Air Force are ignoring potential national security threats by not investigating “UFO phenomena” such as a cigar-shaped craft that was reportedly sighted near the Channel Islands in 2007.

While he doesn’t explicitly say that these unexplained aircraft are of the invaders-from-another-planet variety, Pope claims that our skepticism towards anything “below the radar” makes us vulnerable to attack from human-made flying objects with which we’re unfamiliar (like oh, say, the secret invisible bombers that Al-Qaeda could be building in the Tora Bora caves?)

That the Times is suddenly handing the microphone to an avowed UFO believer seems a bit odd, particularly when you examine Pope’s history. Here’s a review from Booklist of Open Skies, which was a best-seller in the U.K.:

If Pope is correct, Earth is currently in the middle of an interplanetary war. He claims that while he was stationed at the “UFO Desk” of Britain’s Ministry of Defense, he studied UFO sightings as well as crop circles and cattle mutilations—all of which led him to the conclusion that the aliens are here, and they aren’t friendly. He believes it is time the British government and the world in general rally to confront the invaders. The author openly compares himself to Fox Mulder of TV’s X-Files in his struggles to bring forth the hidden evidence of the security danger to planet Earth… Although numerous incidents are cited, actual evidence is lacking, and logic is often absent from the author’s arguments.

Not exactly hard proof of anything other than the fact that Pope is good at spinning a narrative to win publicity. As fellow DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait put it:

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MORE ABOUT: aliens, government, UFO
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