Science in the Crosshairs

Don Howard

Sometime over the weekend of September 28-29, Mojtaba Ahmadi, a specialist in cyber-defense and the Commander of Iran’s Cyber War Headquarters, was found dead with two bullets to the heart. Nothing has been said officially, but it is widely suspected that Ahmadi was targeted for assassination, some pointing the finger of blame at Israel. The method of the attack, reportedly assassins on motorbikes, is reminiscent of earlier assassinations or attempted assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists going back to 2007, those attacks also widely assumed to have been the work of Israeli operatives.

Noteworthy is the fact that, as with those earlier assassinations, this latest attack is receiving scant attention in the mainstream press. Nor has it occasioned the kind of protest that one might have expected from the international scientific community. This silence is worrisome for several reasons.

Were Iran in a state of armed conflict with an adversary, as defined by the international law of armed conflict (ILOAC), and if one of its technical personnel were directly involved in weapons development, then that individual would be a legitimate target, as when the OSS targeted Werner Heisenberg for assassination in WWII owing to his role at the head of the German atomic bomb project. But such is not the case. Iran is not in a state of armed conflict with any potential adversary. That being so, the silence on the part of other governments and the lack of protest from NGOs, professional associations, and other stakeholders means that we are allowing a precedent to be set that could have the effect of legitimating such assassinations as part of customary law.

Were this to become accepted practice, then the consequences would be profound. It would then be perfectly legal for a targeted nation, such as Iran, to retaliate in kind with attacks targeted against technical personnel within countries reasonably deemed responsible for sponsoring the original attack. Thus, were it to emerge that the US had a hand in these events, even if only by way of logistical or intelligence support, then any US cyberwarfare specialist would become a legitimate target, as would be any US nuclear weapons technical personnel. Quite frankly, I worry that it is only a matter of time before Iran attempts precisely that, and the US being a softer target than Israel, I worry that it may happen here first.

Technical professional associations such as IEEE or the American Physical Society have, I think, a major responsibility to make this a public issue and to take a stand calling for a cessation of such attacks.

The alternative is to condone the globalization and domestication of the permanent state of undeclared conflict in which we seem to find ourselves today. Critics of US foreign and military policy might applaud this as just desserts for unwarranted meddling in the affairs of other nations. That is most definitely not my view, for I believe that bad actors have to be dealt with firmly by all legal means. My concern is that these targeted assassinations, while currently illegal, may become accepted practice. And I don’t want our children to grow up in the kind of world that would result.

How to Talk about Science to the Public – 1. Don’t Insult the Intelligence of Your Audience

Don Howard

About ten years ago I wrote the Einstein article for the new edition of a major encyclopedia. It shall remain unnamed, but you would most definitely recognize it. I enjoyed the challenge and am proud of the product, both because such writing is important and because it is hard work. One must be engaging, intelligible, and concise. Academics must resist the urge to splurge on words.

Writing this article was, however, harder than it should have been, because my editor kept repeating the old journalist’s mantra about writing to the level of the typical fourteen-year-old. We fought. I resisted. He won. He demanded plainer language. He insisted on tediously pedantic explanations of what I thought the reader would see as simple, even if slightly technical concepts. He struck whole paragraphs that I thought were wonderful and he thought were too arcane. Time and again I said that the real fourteen-year-olds I knew could easily understand points that he thought beyond the reach of his imaginary, teen reader. I don’t think that I made a friend. I taunted him by noting that the reader confused about concept X could simply look up the article on X elsewhere in the same encyclopedia. Impolitic, yes, but I couldn’t stop myself. Naughty Don.

A few years later I was asked to do a series of lectures on Einstein for the company then called The Teaching Company and now re-branded as The Great Courses. This was a totally different and far more enjoyable experience, largely because the smart folks in charge at The Great Courses start with a very different assumption about the audience. They asked me to imagine an audience of college-educated professionals, people who loved their student experiences and were hungry for more. Of course, one still had to adjust one’s writing to the level and background of the audience, as one must do with any class one teaches. That is a trivial truth. But what I knew about those kinds of students in my classes was that they wanted to be pushed and challenged. They wanted to be taught new things. They didn’t run in fear of difficult concepts and ideas. Like athletes striving for a personal best, they enjoyed the hard work. The muscles ache, the brain needs a rest, but the achievement makes it worthwhile. Most important is that such students appreciate one’s flattering them with the assumption that they have brains, that they are smart, well-educated, and able to rise to the moment.

I am really proud of the lectures: Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The uniformly positive feedback confirms the point that the intelligent student, reader, and listener can and wants to understand more than journalistic mythology asserts.

Don Howard. Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The Great Courses.

My old encyclopedia editor friend will object, I’m sure: “What about all of the others, the ones who didn’t have a college education or weren’t even ‘B+’ students?” Well, yes indeed, what of them? They are a numerous lot. And if one has the crime “beat” at the local newspaper or writes the “Friends and Neighbors” column, then, yes, ok, I suppose that one must write down to the level of a poorly-educated, fourteen-year-old.

But is that the audience for those of us who write about science for a general public? I hope not. Is it elitist of me to say that I don’t want “Joe the Plumber” making science policy for the 21st century?

I like to think of the main target audience for good science writing as the educated, scientific laity or those (such as smart high school students) who are soon to become part of it. These are the neighbors and fellow citizens who must be involved in the national and global conversation about science and technology for the future. These are the people whose voices should count in debates about climate change, biotechnology, space exploration, and cyberconflict. These are the people for whom we must learn to write and speak.

They deserve our respect.

(Subsequent posts in this series will address more specific challenges in writing about science and technology for the general public.)