Imperial Storm Scientists

The Red Army Faction was a communist guerilla group operating 1970-1998 in, of all places, West Germany. The RAF engaged in a variety of operations in the 1970s, including assassinations and bombings, primarily around the German government’s material support of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

As depicted in the Baader-Meinhof Complex and this BBC documentary, the RAF and the West German government entered a spiral of mutual self-deception. Each told itself the lies necessary to defeat the other. However inaccurately depicted in the films, truths, spoken and lived, were sacrificed for the victory neither side could achieve:

The scope of the RAF’s bombing campaign outpaced its initial public support and sharpened the fascistic reaction the group claimed its enemy. Supporters think the latter repression emblematic of RAF’s success but they’d be hard pressed to claim even a moral victory as the German people acclimated to, and even openly supported, a burgeoning police state. Post-Nazi Germany meanwhile suffered a funktionshäftling‘s shame killing dissidents, however violent, in the name of colonial liquidations ruthlessly conducted abroad.

If only American fallacies were so rottenly principled.

Naked casuistry is instead our most profitable commodity. We revel in it. Lies cover cornered markets. Their refutations only open new ones. Blowback is blown back forward. Errors in judgment are publicly celebrated. And along the way many a scientist, never smarter than his or her bourgeois peccadilloes, plays the willing waterboy.

Climate. The wackiest of climate change denialists are counterpoised along the acceptable political continuum by two camps. As we discussed previously, on the one hand the ‘green’ capitalists self-righteously misrepresent the economics that have brought civilization near destruction as the means of its salvation.

Many of the mainstream environmental groups meanwhile run interference for the worst polluters. As Christine MacDonald describes it, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy, among others, dole out gobs of cash to scientists while greenwashing their dirtiest corporate contributors in the name of saving the planet. In short, in tracking environmental destruction on the corporate dime, some scientists, willingly manipulated, help protect the very power behind the oncoming apocalypse.

The corruption’s reaction time puts even Joe Mauer’s bat to shame. At any crisis everything–even the most milquetoast agenda–is dropped at a veritable instance to protect industry’s prime directives. Earlier this year Iceland’s volcano brought a continent’s air traffic to a halt. After several days warning ash could drop planes out of the sky, technical opinion nimbly reversed. And just in time. A piqued Slavoj Zizek asks,

[H]ow come the scientific evidence began to suggest it was safe to fly over most of Europe just when the pressure from the airlines became most intense? Is this not further proof that capital is the only real thing in our lives, with even scientific judgements having to bend to its will?

War on Terror. Iraq and Afghanistan offer more than laboratories for innovations in emergency medicine and the physics of ordnance. Psychologists and physicians were instrumental in devising the new tortures softening up Guantanamo Bay detainees. As reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association,

Enhanced interrogation methods were applied in escalating fashion. Interrogators typically began by removing the detainee’s clothes, limiting food, and depriving him of sleep through the use of stress positions. If this failed to produce intelligence, interrogators introduced “corrective” and “coercive” methods, including facial and abdominal slaps, dousing with cold water, stress positions and wall standing, confinement in a small or large box, and “walling” (throwing a detainee against a wall up to 20-30 times). If the detainee still did not provide information, interrogators could use waterboarding (simulated drowning)…

[P]hysicians and other health care professionals performed on-site medical evaluations before and during interrogation, and waterboarding required the presence of a physician. Exercising these functions violated the ethical standard that physicians may never use their medical skills to facilitate torture or be present when torture is taking place.

Abu Ghraib in white coats and tweed. Chilling.

In Afghanistan anthropologists, little Colin Turnbulls in camo, worked themselves into a ‘Darkness in Shabek Valley’, aiding and abetting pacification campaigns across a ‘Human Terrain’ routinely strafed by U.S. forces.

Such opportunities now exist stateside. As a recent series in the Washington Post describes, much scientific spooking and make-spook is presently available across a growing and unregulated network of secret government agencies and private companies dedicated to detecting enemies real and imagined. The U.S. appears well on its way to fulfilling Dick Cheney’s dirtiest fantasies in full Stasi technicolor,

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

Geo-spatial analysis, translation, data harvesting, remote sensing, permanent dry wall impenetrable to eavesdropping tools, and on and on. In a perverse Keynesian corrective, America, including its overaccumulating postdocs, is being put back to work spying on, among others, the world’s reserve army of unemployed,

In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

The Great Recession. The economic collapse was itself the product of scientific genius (as we detailed here). Mathematical quants developed financial instruments so complex as to be divorced from the economics underlying both the real economy, of course, but even those of the finance sector, already in part imaginary. As Scott Patterson describes it,

These computer-driven investors couldn’t care less about a company’s “fundamentals,” amorphous qualities such as the morale of its employees or the cut of its chief executive’s jib. That was for the dinosaurs of Wall Street, the Warren Buffets and Peter Lynches of the world, investors who focused on factors such as what a company actually made and whether it made it well. Quants were agnostic on such matters, devoting themselves instead to predicting whether a company’s stock would move up or down based on a dizzying array of numerical variables such as how cheap it was relative to the rest of the market, how quickly the stock had risen or declined, or a combination of the two—and much more…

The Truth was a universal secret about the way the market worked that could only be discovered through mathematics. Revealed through the study of obscure patterns in the market, the Truth was the key to unlocking billions in profits. The quants built giant machines—turbocharged computers linked to financial markets around the globe—to search for the Truth, and to deploy it in their quest to make untold fortunes. The bigger the machine, the more Truth they knew, and the more Truth they knew, the more they could bet. And from that, they reasoned, the richer they’d be. Think of white-coated scientists building ever more powerful devices to replicate the conditions at the moment of the Big Bang to understand the forces at the root of creation. It was about money, of course, but it was also about proof. Each added dollar was another tiny step toward proving they had fulfilled their academic promise and uncovered the Truth.

The connection between the financial neocortex, where higher-order modeling occurs, and the prefrontal cortex, where some aspects of social restraint are exercised, was willfully severed from both ends by a lascivious greed, however well appointed the ties and shoes,

Like most Wall Streeters, however, Aaron Brown was dazzled by the numbers, by the ingenious trading strategies that could arb out inefficiencies and deliver seemingly endless profits. Indeed, virtually the entire quant community, aside from a few random party-poopers, embraced the derivatives explosion wholeheartedly. The layered levels of complexity didn’t bother them whatsoever. They loved it.

The bankers and their clients failed to track the layers of dependencies quants constructed. Most didn’t even understand that such layers existed. They were caught within an Inception of their own making, at best waking up unawares in the first of a nest of fantasies. As Michael Lewis describes one Morgan Stanley trader,

The risk department had trouble relaxing, however. To them it seemed as if Hubler and his traders didn’t fully understand their own gamble. Hubler kept saying he was betting against the subprime bond market. But if so, why did he lose billions if it collapsed? As one senior Morgan Stanley risk manager put it, “It’s one thing to bet on red or black and know that you are betting on red or black. It’s another to bet on a form of red and not to know it.”

An emphasis on modeling time series at the expense of all other considerations extends beyond their alleged practical uses, for better and for worse, in predicting market trends and to their utility as an ideological weapon against naysayers and regulators alike. With each new instrument, one can stay a step ahead of both rebuttal and the law.

Oil spill. BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico gushed out of a gash in the body politic as much out from the sea floor.

The specifics are embodied most sharply in the operation of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, created under Reagan to lease the continental shelf as well as regulate offshore operations. In a conflict of interest, the MMS found itself also responsible for collecting revenues from the companies it oversaw, collecting $23 billion in 2008 alone. The wads put a premium on imposing as little supervision as possible. The more the companies it regulated profited, the more MMS raked in.

At the ground level a number of internal and external investigations revealed the personal effects of such structural scandal, including repeated cases of MMS and energy industry officials literally jumping into bed with each other, trading sex and drugs for access and cash.

Many of the most egregious shenanigans occurred under Presidents Clinton and Bush II, but the specifics for the Deepwater Horizon disaster can be laid  squarely at President Obama’s feet. As Vijay Prashad explains, Obama’s MMS permitted BP an unprecedented pass to the deepest and most dangerous drilling,

On April 6, 2009, the MMS gave BP a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)… BP earned its 2009 exemption as a result of the MMS’ inadequate evaluation of offshore drilling and in particular the Deepwater Horizon. In 2007, the MMS felt that “a large oil spill” from Deepwater would not exceed 1,500 barrels and a “deepwater spill” that might occur “offshore of the inner Continental Shelf” would not reach the coast. A second assessment put the total spill at 4,600 barrels and predicted that a spill would dissipate after 10 days. Lease 206 for Deepwater Horizon, therefore, pointed out that “no mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources”. U.S. regulators allowed BP to operate with lower safety standards than is required in the North Sea, and about the same kind of regulatory regime as is asked for by the government of Nigeria in its Delta. In other words, hardly any overseeing.

In 2009, with the Obama team in office, the MMS exempted BP from an environmental impact assessment. “Birds could become oiled,” the statement acknowledged, but “it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill would occur from the proposed activities” (BP, “Initial Exploration Plan for Mississippi Canyon Block 252”, February 2009). What about an action plan in case of a spill? “A model of a potential oil or hazardous substance spill is not required for the activities proposed in this plan.”

Science’s fault here lies in its creepy manipulation. Regulation requires a scientific literacy someone along the line felt comfortable enough to abandon. Its presence is most felt in its absence. As Prashad describes,

BP’s June 30, 2009, spill response plan is comedic. This 583-page document has no oceanic or meteorological data, it has no information about tracking sub-surface oil plumes, and it mentions animals that do not live in the Gulf of Mexico (sea lions, sea otters, seals and walruses). In addition, the report tells BP employees not to make “promises that property, ecology or anything else will be restored to normal”, alongside no promise on “liability for the spill or its consequences”. The only section of the report that seemed logical was BP’s attempt to ward off claims against its profits. The MMS accepted this as fact, including the bunkum about walruses.

But even the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, with far-reaching impacts, including, as some have warned, the collapse of much of the world’s fisheries, cannot change capital’s course. Prashad notes, “Even after the April blowout, the MMS gave out 27 offshore drilling permits with lax safety and environmental scrutiny.”

Indeed, there remains no room even for a little lip service. The Obama administration’s efforts to mollify public opinion post-spill and merely postpone a poorly timed end to a moratorium on offshore drilling were reversed by a federal judge’s injunction.

The judge, Martin Feldman, owns stock in six drilling companies, including Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP; Halliburton, which also performed work at the site; and two of BP’s largest shareholders, BlackRock and JPMorgan Chase. Feldman is no rogue, however. An Associated Press investigation found half the federal judges in the districts affected by the spill have financial ties to the oil and gas industry.

While the limpest efforts to sidetrack runaway development are easily swatted aside with a judiciary owned lock, stock and oil barrel, capital can outflank stronger regulation by other means, including geo-forming the very planet:

BP is skirting a moratorium on offshore drilling by building an island three miles off Alaska’s coast and drilling through it. So even engineering and geology are entrained Dr. No-style into the corruption. As the New York Times reports,

BP’s project, called Liberty, has been exempted as regulators have granted it status as an “onshore” project even though it is about three miles off the coast in the Beaufort Sea. The reason: it sits on an artificial island — a 31-acre pile of gravel in about 22 feet of water — built by BP…

Rather than conducting their own independent analysis, federal regulators, in a break from usual practice, allowed BP in 2007 to write its own environmental review for the project as well as its own consultation documents relating to the Endangered Species Act, according to two scientists from the Alaska office of the federal Mineral Management Service that oversees drilling.

If no one, including MMS scientists, can stop such efforts, someone surely must be able to look into their subsequent impacts at the least.

Non-governmental scientists investigating the effects of the Gulf oil spill, however, are now herding themselves into a BP pen. The BBC reports scientists contracted by BP to study the effects of the spill have agreed to forgo publishing their results or sharing them otherwise without BP approval,

What [Cary Nelson, the head of the American Association of University Professors] is concerned about is BP’s control over scientific research.

“Our ability to evaluate the disaster and write public policy and make decisions about it as a country can be impacted by the silence of the research scientists who are looking at conditions,” he said.

“It’s hugely destructive. I mean at some level, this is really BP versus the people of the United States.”

While many scientists have rejected BP’s lusty advances, Nelson and other liberals defending science elide the agency exercised by those scientists who do partake,

Irv Mendelssohn is a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University.

“What I’m doing wouldn’t be any different than if I was consulting with one of the natural resource trustees. I am giving my objective opinion about recovery.”

Some scientists approached by BP lawyers have been offered as much as $250 an hour.

Prof Mendelssohn says he would negotiate his normal consulting fee, which is between $150 and $300 an hour. But he says that is not why he is doing it.

“Good scientists, they’re going to be giving their opinions based on the facts and they are not going to bias their opinions. What’s most important is credibility.”

Their credibility, indeed.

Such corruptions are unsurprisingly synergistic. Those who obfuscate in one arena are recruited elsewhere. Naomi Klein identifies Steven Koonin, Obama’s undersecretary of energy for science, as

one of the leading proponents of the idea that climate change can be combated with techno tricks like releasing sulphate and aluminium particles into the atmosphere – and of course it’s all perfectly safe, just like Disneyland! He also happens to be BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just 15 months ago was still overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling.

Pandemic influenza. The study of and intervention into pathogen outbreaks sport their own economy. Close misses are routinely presented as successes. Scientific opinion, as in the airline and ash example above, can be molded into political expediency.

Paul Forster recently noted in the context of influenza research,

[I]f scientific knowledge is created by people and institutions with particular situated and partial perspectives, it will ask partial questions responding to partial interests… Given that scientists frame policy issues by defining what evidence is significant and available, and policy-makers frame scientific enquiry by defining what is relevant, unhelpful self-sustaining routines of co-production can emerge, which are shaped by political and economic forces… Interests therefore align in a particular historical-cultural context, which can be called the political economy.

But the characterization may not be harsh enough. Philosopher István Mészáros, to whom we will return in posts to follow, writes of the ideological uses of scientific theory,

The conscious character of the involvement, and the corresponding historical responsibility, of the major intellectual representatives of capital is not diminished (and even less can it be minimized) by the circumstance that they also adopt and constantly reproduce the illusion that in their conception of the right and proper social order they are articulating the universal interest of society, and not only of its structurally dominant force. For, again, we are talking about a process whereby the thinkers concerned actively make their own such illusions, which happen to be ideologically most convenient illusions, corresponding to the vantage point of capital’s social metabolic order.

In other words, many scientists convince themselves their capitalist allegiances are merely descriptions of a universal order. Such illusions have their ideological and practical, and personally rewarding, functions. The best way to tell a lie, after all, is to believe the lie.

Last year’s swine flu H1N1 pandemic offers three examples wherein business interests were recast as a scientific necessity.

The U.S. government promised to make 120 million vaccine shots available to the public by October 2009. It delivered only 13 million, stranding millions of Americans, who queued up in long lines outside clinics in the face of widespread anti-vax skepticism. At the time a Purdue University study declared any attempt to play catch-up as already too late, estimating 63% of Americans were likely to be infected by late October. In other words, if the virus had been more virulent, the failure to deliver would have been catastrophic.

Public health officials first blamed the vaccine industry,

As nervous Americans clamor for the vaccine, production is running several weeks behind schedule, and health officials blame the pressure on pharmaceutical companies to crank it out along with the ordinary flu vaccine, and a slow and antiquated process that relies on millions of chicken eggs.

There have been other bottlenecks, too: Factories that put the precious liquid into syringes have become backed up. And the government itself ran into a delay in developing the tests required to assess each batch before it is cleared for use.

But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention decided to spin the delay as something of a good thing. In early November CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, confounding the issue of the failure to deliver vaccine with anti-vax hysteria, framed the delay in terms of safety,

Clearly the vaccine production technologies need to continue to improve. We’re still using eggs. We’re still using technologies that have been around for a long time. We did not cut any corners in terms of vaccine safety. All of the safeguards are being used. We’re using the same production methods, the same factories, the same companies, the same safeguards to make a vaccine that’s been used for hundreds of millions of doses with an excellent safety record.

Influenza vaccine production, largely privatized since the Reagan administration, has suffered over the past two decades in both output and regulation. In 2003, for instance, the FDA discovered bacterial contamination at a Chiron Corp vaccine plant in England, one of only two supplying the U.S. at that time, but did nothing but suggest voluntary changes. It wasn’t until 16 months later that British regulators finally shut down production, causing a gap in vaccine coverage here that flu season.

The last five years have seen something of a reversal in production at least in industrial countries. However, governments are ramping up production for this pandemic in part by indemnifying pharm companies from litigation should safety problems emerge. In other words, contra CDC assurances, it takes foisting an added risk in health and safety on the public, however slight, to permit the capitalist mode of production to manufacture basic vaccines.

Other industries are fundamental to the success of pandemic influenza and its spread. Much work has shown the growth of the airline industry has increased the speed at which pandemic influenza circumnavigates the globe. Swine flu H1N1 spread to Asia from its North American epicenter in nine days, much faster than models predicted even only a couple years ago.

Enterprises on the ground also appear implicated. Could, for instance, theme parks such as Disneyland, hosting 15 millions visitors a year from around the world, amplify influenza outbreaks? According to CDC, no,  not the case,

Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, a travel health expert at the C.D.C., said that fears about catching the flu on a Disney vacation might be overblown. “To single out Disneyland and Disney World is not appropriate with regard to transmission of H1N1,” she said in an e-mail message. “There are too numerous to count opportunities for people to be in close spaces together, whether in movie theaters, in crowded shopping malls, on public transportation as well as during most individuals’ daily activities.”

And yet, at the same time, CDC researchers offered very different conclusions for another global attraction. Shahul Ebrahim and colleagues reviewed the epidemiological implications of the annual Hajj, when two and a half million Muslim pilgrims converge on Mecca, Saudi Arabia from around the world. According to Ebrahim et al.,

Hajj-related exportation of H1N1 virus by returning pilgrims could potentially initiate waves of outbreaks worldwide…[P]ilgrims originating from North America (more than 15,000) and Europe (more than 45,000) pass through major airline hubs of the world on their journey, which increases the risk of international spread of the virus.

The authors offered control recommendations for the Hajj under the principle that those administrating mass gatherings, including, for instance, Disneyland, should act in as cautious a way as possible in case such places or the events they host are in fact instrumental in the virus’s spread. In short, it is better to be safe than sorry.

The difference here is that unlike the travel industry Hajj organizers do not have the phalanxes of lobbyists twisting arms and taking lunch money in Congressional hallways.

A final astonishing example. A recent international meeting attempting to operationalize a more integrated approach to tracking diseases across wildlife, livestock and human populations included a presentation characterizing CDC’s response to swine flu as a One World-One Health success.

The success? According to the presenter, at the hog industry’s initiation CDC joined with the USDA to help craft talking points for the public about pigs and the pandemic. In other words, Big Hog successfully pressganged scientists at two government agencies into covering up their mutual failures in regulating the very industry that helped bring about the virus.

So what’s the take-home?

Neoliberal scientists love knocking communists and the religious for their corrupted epistemologies. But researchers’ capitalist loyalties are presently an acid eating holes through science and politics alike. We can no longer honestly grapple with ongoing and impending global disasters. When even the simplest intervention becomes diverted by corporate interests, societal collapse crosses an event horizon. A degenerate state results or is itself swept away by something entirely new.

What scientists do, or refuse to do, matters much to what will follow. When the ‘best and brightest’ righteously defend, or quietly compartmentalize, their roles in the kleptocratic enterprise, the ‘dirtiest and dumbest’ among us fall in behind the coming insurrection.

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