Scientists Speak Out About Guantánamo

I’ve been thinking there’s too much politics on this blog recently, and yet I still think the political activities of well-known theorists are worth noting here. As commenter Arun pointed out, this Sunday’s New York Times has a letter to the editor criticizing the human rights violations at Guantanamo, signed by many prominent particle theorists, including Susskind (whose name comes first, perhaps he’s the organizer), Bjorken, Deser, Dyson, Gaillard, Gross, Polchinski, Schwarz, Wilczek, Witten and Zumino.

Over at the science policy blog Prometheus, Roger Pielke has a posting called A Very Bad Dream Indeed, in which he strongly criticizes the authors of this letter for writing such a letter that has nothing to do with science policy. He seems to be worried about these scientists “transforming their privilege in the scientific domains into authority in non-scientific domains.” Somehow, I just don’t see the possibility of theoretical physicists grabbing political power and ramrodding through policies they support as being something much worth worrying about. My reaction to this particular letter was not “who do these people think they are to do this?”, but rather “how come everyone else isn’t doing this?” The situation at Guantanamo is a disgrace to this country and that the courts allow it to continue is shocking.

More about this at No Se Nada, the blog of Kevin Vranes.

OK, now, no more about politics for a while. I promise….

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29 Responses to Scientists Speak Out About Guantánamo

  1. MathPhys says:


  2. Dumb Biologist says:

    Book! Book!

  3. Yuri says:

    You right 1000 times!
    No needs use this room for politics.
    There are many other places for it.

  4. woit says:

    My book? Last Thursday I got one of the first copies off the press of the British edition in the mail. Quite something to finally see the thing in print as a real book. Publication date is still one month from now, June 1 in Britain. Working this week on going through the newly copy-edited American version, that’s still set for September sometime.

  5. absolutely says:

    Guantánamo sours my otherwise sweet memory of the few years I spent in the US and the warm and enlightened folk I met there. That my government (Australian) should be so complicit and gutless in condoning it really heavies my heart.

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    I just don’t get it … sunny climate, high-fashion orange suits, being fed and watered at the US taxpayers’ expense … no doubt Cuban cigars and rum freely available as well, especially to Muslims. And of course the most meticulous trial procedure ever, i.e.

    George W Bush: “These are bad people”.

    What’s all the fuss about?

  7. Dumb Biologist says:

    OK, sorry to get so egregiously off topic. Thanks for the update!

  8. Lubos Motl says:

    Roger Zielke’s name is Roger Pielke, and he definitely knows what he talks about.

  9. woit says:

    Thanks Lubos, I fixed his name. He does seem to be your kind of guy.

  10. Hi Peter,

    I totally agree with what you said.

    I see nothing wrong if anybody who sees something wrong happening, and who enjoys attention of the media, uses the media to denounce it. It is part of the game. I don’t particularly like the game, sure. But anybody who cares for civil rights should think about the horror of american prisons in Guantanamo and Iraq, and the indecence of Defence Ministers covering it instead than putting an end to it.

    Let’s stop this horror, and let’s not be afraid to use any possible venue and means to denounce it. The US have been entangled with regimes that tortured and killed thousands of innocents in the past. Sure, other countries have too. But if the US wants people in the world to look at it as an example of a free, civil country, they need to change the way they act abroad.

    I love the US, as I love my country, but both have lots to change for the better.


  11. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt comes to mind as an example of the weight scientists hold with politicians when they stay within their field of competance. His lobbying for a world government after the second world war, comes to mind as an example of the lack of weight scientist’s views carry once they stray outside their field of competance.

  12. SomeBody says:

    I note that pointing out the hypocritical behaviour and dishonorable political affiliation of a certain serial US basher posting here is frowned upon by the management. May I ask why?

  13. woit says:

    Ad hominem, personal attacks are definitely frowned upon by the management and will virtually always be deleted (although I often leave up the ones by string theorists attacking me). Also strongly discouraged are attempts to start up off-topic political battles here. Your comment qualified for deletion on both counts, so I deleted it and the responses it immediately started generating.

  14. SomeBody says:

    I see the delete button is working overtime today. 😉

    I disagree with your characterization of my post, but it’s your blog. Peace.

  15. Benjamin says:

    I don’t want to promote the politics that Peter Woit doesn’t want here, but I do want to make a comment that I think would be beneficial to those on the ‘left’. I am in the center, not in favor of the Iraq war, but not willing to call Bush a Nazi or anything like that. I agree that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were wrong and hurt America’s image badly. What I can’t understand is how the ‘left’ gets obsessed with this and ignores all the terrorism, often in the name of Islam, the bombings, decapitations, human rights abuses, etc. It’s not that America should never be criticized, but it seems that there is a lack of proportion. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, for all their horror and humiliation, are still much less ‘evil’ than pedestrians being blown to pieces in Israeli pizza parlors. If the left seemed more balanced, it would have much more credibility, but the same can be said of the right of course. You really need to think about how you sound to the mainstream, or you are self-defeating. All this partisan hypocrisy and stupidity from both sides needs to stop in favor of a fair and balanced view. I’m surprised that even smart physicists fall for far-left rhetoric. Don’t erase this; it’s really worth thinking about. No need to discuss further.

  16. woit says:

    OK Benjamin, I’ll leave your comment as having some relevance to the topic. However, please, everyone, take any arguments about who is more or less evil than whom elsewhere.

  17. knotted string says:

    It’s a shame they do the torture behind closed doors, in a democracy it should be done openly. I humbly offer the suggestion that torture is done democratically:

    The person to be tortured should be web-cast live, and U.S. viewers should be in control. Electric shocks can be administered automatically after every fixed number of internet votes. (1) This will really deter terrorists. (2) This will save a small number of professional torturer’s feeling bad about their work. (3) It will give everyone an elated sense of justice and moral ethics.

  18. Chris Oakley says:

    Knotted String,

    I think that you have a great idea there, and I have to say, I prefer it to your ideas about physics.

    What I like best is that because we live in a free society, it will be all the sadistic muthas who will choose to log on to this web site to administer tortures to terrorists. I am no expert on psychology, but I am sure that people will be much more sincerely nasty if they are doing it as a recreation rather than a boring old nine to five job.

  19. steve says:

    It is disappointing that scientists who would insist on precision in distinguishing one phenomenon from another in their own fields have no compunctions about tossing out a word like “Guantanamo” without crucial distinctions being made. There are big differences in the morality and prudence and remedies for a) the detention of illegal combatants for the duration of hostilitles, b) the detention of people incorrectly believed to be illegal combatants, c) the authorized use of aggressive interrogation tactics against presumed illegal combatants, d) the unauthorized use of aggressive tactics to gratify individual power-lust, e) the authorized use of torture for interrogation, f) the unauthorized use of torture for interrogation, and g) the unauthorized use of torture for personal gratification.

    Some of these may be acceptable, some of them call for systemic reform, some of them call for allowing the existing disciplinary structures to function (e.g. the Abu Ghraib abuses were uncovered by the military itself; the media found out months later). The kind of lazy thinking displayed in using “Guantanamo” as some sort of shorthand for evil is discouraging in a group that prides itself on its analytical acumen and clarity of thought.

  20. Eli Rabett says:

    Ben and Lubos only believe in or not and.

    One can be against all groups who practice deceit, kill and torture. It is ethically more important to oppose those closest to you who do this. Even as a practical matter this is vital so that you may have allies in your struggle.

  21. Michael Kellman says:

    Like it or not, this is the policy of the elected government of the United States. Congress has the power to stop it if it judges such to be warranted. It apparently doesn’t.

    Is it really such a good idea for scientists — physicists — qua scientists and physicists — to set themselves up in opposition to American foreign policy?

    Perhaps the message received will be that science does not support America as represented by its elected government.

    And perhaps that a reconsideration is in order as to whether it is such a good idea for America to support science?

  22. Santo D'Agostino says:

    To Michael Kellman:

    Of course it is a good idea for citizens of a purportedly free democracy to speak freely, whether or not they support the current government. Numerous American leaders over the years (the current president, with his “You’re either with us or against us,” being a prime example) have very effectively confused people into thinking that criticizing the U.S. government is being anti-American. On the contrary, it is a DUTY of citizenship to speak out against immoral and criminal behavior, especially when it is committed by a country’s leaders.

    The ideas behind your last sentence are repellent, both for its implication that scientists should experience repercussions (What did you have in mind? That they lose their jobs? That they lose their research funding?) for exercising their rights as American citizens, and for its counter-productive vindictiveness. A decrease in support for American science harms all Americans, not just the scientists directly involved.

    Santo D’Agostino

  23. Bert Schroer says:

    I suppot D’Agostino’s statement. As a non US citizen I have no influence on the US policies through a vote, but as a member of the western civilization I suffer all the consequences of the tension and hightened danger created by such an uncivilized action; so my democratic rights have been considerably reduced (despite all the propaganda about strengthening democracy in this world) by Guantanamo, Abu Graib and the CIA torture flights using European airspace. There are numerous past precedents of such actions by the scientific elite of a country, some of them even successful as the anti-nuclear campaign of the Goettingen 18 (Born, Heisenberg,….)

  24. Michael Kellman says:

    D’Agostino and Schroer have every right to call our elected governors “immoral”, “criminal”, “uncivilized”. Witten et al. have a right to criticize the government as a group of scientists. (Why anyone should especially care what a group of scientists thinks about foreign policy is beyond me.)

    But the public who elected the government has a right to draw its own conclusions. I’m not suggesting that anyone should lose their job (as a possibility the notion that IAS is going to fire Witten for this is pretty preposterous). I’m not suggesting that anyone should lose a grant.

    But the public has a right to draw its own conclusions. Perhaps people will think that the scientists’ judgement about science is as unproductive as their judgement about foreign policy.

    There is no law of nature that “a decrease in support for American science harms all Americans”.

    Science also no natural right or entitlement to support.

    I notice that U.S. high energy physics is looking for support for new experiments. Many people may conclude that if it’s a choice between backing what the country is doing in war and backing high energy physics, that they prefer the latter.

    The scientists have every right to set themselves up as sceintists in opposition to our elected government.

    But personally, I don’t think it’s too smart.

  25. SomeBody says:

    Now I’m really puzzled. Why was my latest post in this thread deleted? Surely it contained nothing which could be labeled as either ad hominem or off topic (if anything, it pointed out the topic of the thread). More and more peculiar…

  26. Bert Schroer says:

    The answer is very simple: it is because my post was deleted. Its democracy in practice and this time I even agree with it.

  27. woit says:

    I’ve deleted a lot of comments from this thread, both from people submitting political rants, as well as those responding to them. If you want to spend your time doing things like attributing straw-man arguments to people and then vigorously attacking them as foolish and immoral, or if you enjoy responding to this kind of thing, do it elsewhere, not here.

  28. woit says:


    Actually it’s more of a benevolent dictatorship in practice…

  29. Bert Schroer says:

    I meant that the dictatorship is at least administered democratically.

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