Monday, 28 September 2009

Who is a Real Arab!

I don’t understand your Arab culture.” 
is the phrase I overheard at a cafe as two men wearing Western clothes were discussing very animatedly in good cheer and laughing together occasionally. Then, so typically among good friends, they had the traditional argument about ’Let me pay the bill, I insist’. This set me thinking – who is an Arab?

The stereotypical perception of an Arab in many countries is that an Arab is a Muslim, lives in the Middle East and is probably loaded with oil money. Unfortunately, another totally mistaken stereotype has started to become prevalent – the Arab terrorist. All these stereotypes are totally wrong.

What is the Definition of an Arab?

In Arab schoolbooks, the Arab world ranges from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean and from Syria to Sudan in Africa. 

  • It was only in the 19th and 20th century that Arab nationalism created this concept of an Arab world. 

Before that, people usually identified themselves with tribes or with political structures like the Ottoman Empire. Pre-Islamic Arabic as a language dates back to the 4th century.

There are three methods of classifying as an Arab.
  1. Linguistic – If your first language is Arabic as for about 200 million people.
  2. Geneological – If you can trace your ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
  3. Political - The League of Arab States or Jāmiʻat ad-Duwal al-ʻArabiyya has 339 million people living in 22 states. They define an Arab as “A person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is the citizen of an Arab country, whose father is an Arab, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples.”

How the Arabs See Themselves

Only 32% of the 4100 people surveyed in six Arab countries by Professor Shibley Telhami’s group at the University of Maryland saw themselves as Muslims or Arabs. 35% considered themselves primarily as citizens of their own country. Only 1% had the idea of being a world citizen.


Compare the situation to 2010.

Not all Muslims are Arabs. Arabs are only 24% of the 1,4 billion Muslims in the world. 85% of the population in Morocco and 55% in Algeria are Berbers (Famous Berbers: Zinedine Zidane, Saint Augustine, Emperor Septimius Severus) who are non-Arabs.

Most of the people living in Egypt do not consider themselves Arabs.

  • In Sudan, there are more than fifty ethnic groups and only half the population can speak Arabic.

Is Arab 'Identity' a matter of Language, Religion or Ethnicity?

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This is a very complicated question and there are many opinions when one considers that there are so many different nation states, religious sub-divisions and ethnic variety among the 'Arabs'.

Does language and history define national identity for the Arabs more than religion?
  • There are many serious scholars, like Abu Khaldun Sati al Husari (1881-1967) the Syrian/Ottoman theoretician of Arab nationalism and author of A Day in Maysalun, who believes that language and not religion, economy and geography are important for the formation of nationalism. Language is "the heart and spirit of the nation," and history is its "memory and feeling." 
  • The British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani in his book, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, agrees by claiming that Arabs are "more conscious of their language than any people in the world." 

The contrary view, that religion does play a major role, also has qualified support.
  • Abd al-Aziz Duri, the eminent Iraqi social historian says "Islam unified Arabs and provided them with a message, an ideological framework, and a state." He goes on to clarify the link between Islam and Arabism as being "were closely linked at first, but subsequently followed separate courses."

Are Arabs Antagonistic to Western Civilization?

Many people assume that Arab civilisation is eternally antagonistic to Western civilisation. The ridiculous stereotype of the Arab terrorist in the West and the equally mistaken notion of America as the ‘Great Satan’ among the Arabs do betray a history of armed conflict. From the Battle of Tours in 732 CE through the Crusades onwards there has been no love lost between the civilisations. 

Ironically, Islam has very much in common with the Judaic and Christian traditions in the form of common religious figures, customs and traditions. They are all children of Adam, Moses and Abraham. 
  • Arabs were very instrumental in transmitting scientific knowledge from the Orient to the Occident in centuries past.
  • It was the Arabs who brought the numerals and the zero. 
  • Many words in the English and Spanish languages are from the Arabic. Most people drinking alcohol wouldn’t care to know that it is an Arabic word. 
On the other hand, a significant portion of the educated people in the Arab world dress in Western costumes, are proud to speak fluent English and educate their children in Western universities.

How People Living in Arab Countries Use the Internet

The use of the Internet has started changing Arab societies politically, socially and economically as it has done in many other countries. 

It is perhaps to hasty to draw conclusions if frequency of Internet use has any positive correlation to political freedom and dissent threshold in these countries. But frequency of Internet use most certainly has a large impact on all aspects of life for people living in these countries, unless they are immune to commercial and other forms of propaganda. 

Things have changed a lot in Arab countries. In the days of Saddam Hussein, people who could afford getting Internet connection (frightfully expensive in those days) also needed to sign the following declaration.

  • The subscription applicant must report any hostile website seen on the internet, even if it was seen by chance. The applicants must not copy or print any literature or photos that go against state policy or relate to the regime. Special inspectors teams must be allowed to search the applicant’s place of residence to examine any files saved on the applicant’s personal computer.

Currently Saudi Arabia follows a very strict approach. Every single cybercafe must install hidden cameras and record the names and contact information of each customer. Actually, this is not that uncommon around the world, even in a country like Italy.

OpenNetInitiative (ONI) reports that Saudi Arabia's 'filtering' centres on the following:
  • pornography 86%
  • gambling 93%
  • religious conversion 41%
  • sites which provide tools and methods to circumvent filters 41%
What Saudi Arabia seems to care less about are
  • Israel 2%
  • religion 1%
  • alcohol 1%
  • politics 3%
  • gay and lesbian issues 11%
Wonder why the Saudi high concern with pornography is not visible in the gay and lesbian arena (86% -vs- 11%)? 
  • Is it because they think that such matters are harmless and let them do it or
  • They do it in any case so why bother or
  • The incidence of gay sexual behaviour (but not identity) is so common that there is no point in making a noise
  • What could men do with men and women do with women? - Is there a trace of Queen Victoria's supposed attitude that "Women do not do such things!" (actually it is a myth, she never said it)

Suggestions for further reading:

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Should People Commit Suicide When They Get Old?

Looking after the old and the infirm is one of the core values of almost all human societies. In many ”developed” welfare societies with a growing army of the aged, this responsibility and respect is fast being replaced by an attitude of seeing humans not involved in economic production as excesss burden to be got rid of.

Changes in How Societies View the Care of the Aged

In some European countries and the US, the chronically ill were herded into large, impersonal and often abusive settings, out of sight. With improved economic conditions and the voice of women after the World Wars, the approach in health care for those unable to care for themselves started changing. But now, with the growing number of those who need care, most countries have to balance the strictures of costs as well as consider cultural and ethnic differences and traditions.

Photo source

The pressure of productivity is eroding core societal values also. The right to enjoy a meaningful, reasonably healthy and safe years of old age as long as one lives is fast being replaced by the refusal of the healthy and the younger to support the aged and infirm. The right to being cared for as long as one lives is fast being replaced by an attitude of ”Get rid of excess burden!”

Attitudes Towards Care of the Aged Have Hardened

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Do people in their working life feel that the increasing demands of staying productive and contributing to a production oriented way of life is sapping all their resources? Do they feel guilty that they have no energy and resources for taking care of the aged and infirm? Is there a hardening of attitudes, where people do not see their parents’ efforts at providing them a fair chances of making a good life as sacrifices?

One often hears from people (usually very unhappy themselves) that 
”I don’t think my parents made any sacrifices. It is their duty to provide material well-being to their children. I didn’t ask to be born. It is the responsibility of the state to take care of them. That’s why we pay so high taxes.”
In Finland, a wealthy and popular woman author, Kaari Utrio, recently caused terror in the hearts of the elderly by suggesting that citizens who are ’old’ should be given euthanasia sleeping pills so that they don’t linger in hospital beds as a burden for others. In the Finnish language discussion forums of the country’s most popular evening paper Ilta Sanomat, 62% of the 28 474 (retrieved on 12.9.2009 at 10:54) respondents accept the voluntary suicide of the infirm and aged.

  • 15% of people over 65 are in long-term care systems in the Nordic countries, while 
  • 0,6% to 3% are the figures for Korea, Italy and Eastern Europe where state provided facilities do not exist.

Neglect Your Parents and Go to Prison in Some Countries

In 1995, the wealthy state of Singapore passed the Maintenance of Parents Act to give parents above 60 years old, who could not support themselves, the legal means to claim maintenance from their children.
  • About two out of three of parents who took their children to court were Chinese. 
  • Indians made up at least 14 per cent, and Malays at least 9 per cent.
Maharashtra and 15 other states of India have the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, a central government legislation, which provides for imprisonment for neglecting parents and senior citizens.
  • The number of cases has risen up from 79 cases in 2006 to 127 cases in 2008.

Issues about Caring For the Elderly and Aging

No one can stay young and agile eternally. In the evening time of life, one begins to lose one’s nimbleness and agility, the capacity for hard physical work and the fuller use of sensory faculties are limited for some people. It is a time for reflection on the larger questions of life. No university teaches us how live life well and then prepare for what Shakespeare calls The undiscovered country.
  • Does interaction with the aged produce a sense of continuity in the younger and transmit deeper cultural values? 
Not all old men are wise and neither are all old women gentle and kind. Only few of the aged manage to free themselves of regrets, guilt and unrealised expectations and fewer still can distill their life experience and communicate anything valuable to the younger generations.

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The concept of the right to die and Death with Dignity Act of the State of Orgeon in USA should not be confused with an attitude of selfishness and non-caring towards towards our elders. Euthanasia is an extremely complicated issue with deep moral undertones and social implications.

Though the new capitalism erodes a sustained sense of purpose and trust in other people, and fragments the integrity of the self, taking care of one’s aged and the infirm remains one of the core values of humankind. 

Photo source

Studies reveal that more than half of Britons would care for ageing partners, sick parents or friends at some point in their lives.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Do Scientists Lie and Cheat?

Cheating is as old as life itself. We can find examples of people in business, politics, religious life, and marriages cheating as far as written records of history go. What about scientists?

Do scientists cheat?

Yes. Scientists do cheat.

Sometimes it is difficult to discern between error and intention to cheat. Researching the extent of intentional fraud among scientists, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, UK discovered that scientists cheat, lie and steal other people’s works. According to him:

  • 1.97% of scientists admit to having fabricated, modified or even falsified data or results at least once. 
  • A staggering 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices like changing the methodology, design or results of a study under pressure from a funding source. When evaluating the behaviour of colleagues
  • 14.12% was the rate of falsification 
  • 72% for questionable practices.
A 2005 study by Martinson, Anderson and de Vries found 3% of scientists admitting to cheating.

There are basically three ways that scientists cheat. 
  1. Plagiarism is when a scientist steals another’s work or parts of the work without attributing. 
  2. The second is falsifying data (wilfully distorting data or results), aka fudging or massaging
  3. Fabrication is when a scientist totally invents data, experiments or cases when none exists (aka drylabbing).

Examples of Scientists Cheating

Falsification of data: Marc D. Hauser, the eminent American evolutionary biologist and a researcher in primate behavior, animal cognition and human behavior had to resign from his teaching position at Harvard University (repeatedly voted the most popular teacher at Harvard Uni). 

Faking research: Hwang Woo-suk, a respected South Korean veterinarian, professor of theriogenology and biotechnology at Seoul National University was sacked for fabricating a series of experiments in stem cell research. 

Ethical Norms For Scientists

CUDOS or Mertonian Norms, introduced in 1942 by Robert Merton propose the principles, which should guide scientists as:
  • Communalism – Scientific results belong to the entire scientific community
  • Universalism –Anyone regardless of race, gender, nationality or culture can contribute.
  • Disinterestedness – Scientists should not mix their results with their personal beliefs or activism.
  • Scientific claims should stand critical scrutiny before being accepted.
Judson HF (2004) The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt is an methodical analysis and presents a historical sweep of scientific fraud. 

  • Even the giants of science like Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Gregory Mendel and Sigmund Freud fudged their data when it didn’t suit them. 

Judson, of course, points out that observing historical scientists through a modern lens might distort answers. Did their intuition lead them to correct answers even at the risk of compromising scientific principles?

Why Scientists Cheat?

Science is a very competitive field, where reputations are made over time and destroyed instantly. A scientists funding depends on his/her reputation gained by publishing high-profile scientific papers. When they suspect that other scientists, working on the same problem, are close to success some scientists bend a few rules to be the first. The body giving the funding may also pressure for a certain type of result. Hwang Woo-Suk fabricated results in stem cell research in two articles published in the prestigious journal Science and claimed he had succeeded in crating human embryonic stem cells by cloning.

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Pride and the desire to achieve fame drive people like mad. Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra, a world famous expert in nutrition and immunology, recipient of the Order of Canada and presumably nominated twice for the Nobel prize, fabricated results, invented a fictitious researcher as well as engaging in other malpractices that ended his brilliant career.

Charles Dawson and the Piltdown Man 1912 forgery took forty years to be revealed.

Envy can be another motive. Vijay Soman, an assistant professor at Yale, was asked to peer review a paper by Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard. He sent back a negative review, delaying its publication. In a bizarre act of destiny, Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard was asked to peer review Soman’s paper and recognized it as her own. Quoted in Judson (2004).

Ambition and pride are very strong motives and peer review may not always be an effective detection method for catching fraud. Robert Slutsky, a famous radiologist at the University of California, San Diego, USA had a hefty portfolio with 137 published papers in 34 journals. 17 of them needed to be retracted, 12 were fraudulent and 48 questionable. Quoted in Judson (2004).

Why Scientists Rarely Go Against the Stream?

One in every five adult Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, according to a 2005 study by Dr. Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University.

‘Civilians’ may not be expected to be very science-savvy, but scientists themselves are about often not very critical about topical issues.

Many scientists privately disagree that humans are responsible for climate change, but hardly any scientific study is funded that dissents. Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study comments: 
The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models... They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.”
The 2009 Peter Doran and Kendall, Zimmerman study claimed after analyzing how many scientists believe in global warming: 
"It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”
Is this complacency, the practical wisdom of reminding oneself not to bite the hand that feeds or ‘dark age’ behaviour by refusing to see what may often even be, to paraphrase the PowerPoint presentation winning the Nobel Prize, an ‘inconvenient truth’?

Currently there is hardly any ground on the basis of reliable studies to conclude that the percentage of crooked scientists is any different from the percentage of people engaged in fraud and malpractices in the general population.