Friday, March 27, 2009

The Pope, Condom, and Discourse Analysis

The Cardinal Era
As one interested in language use and communication, I was pretty excited about the recent pronouncement of the Pope about condoms and the way newspapers, blogosphere, and even friends and acquaintances interpreted it.

When I recently asked a friend about what he thought about the Pope's comment, he said, "Oh, very embarrassing! For a Pope to say in public to hundreds of thousands of Africans that they shouldn't use condoms..."

I said, "But actually, he didn't make his comment in public to thousands of Africans! He was with some reporters on a flight, and while inside the plane, he tried to answer a few questions that the reporters posed. And that's how he happened to say what he said."

"But still, it doesn't seem sensible to say that people shouldn't be using condoms!"

"Well, maybe he personally thinks people shouldn't be using condoms... but in that response to a reporter he didn't exhort people not to use condoms... he was simply answering how he saw the problem of AIDS in Africa and what he thought was the solution."

"But didn't he quite explicitly say that using condoms increases AIDS rather than decreasing it?"

"No! The Pope was talking about condoms being widely distributed like ad leaflets, and said that mere distribution of condoms was not going to solve the AIDS problem, but might increase the problem! His comment was not about use but about distribution."

"Oh, well, whatever he said, he was wrong!"

Obviously, my friend is not the only one who got the impression or who made up in his mind after following the media reports that the Pope was blatantly preaching to the masses, "Don't use condoms! Using it will only increase cases of AIDS!" Readers and hearers got that impression since the media frequently omitted mentioning the context of the Pope's comment and the fact that the Pope was reacting to the distribution rather than to the use of condoms.

What's baffling is that even major newspapers like the Washington Post misinterpret the comment just like my friend. The Post wrote:

Pope Benedict XVI said, "You can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect -- and neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so.

Now if we examine this paragraph, we see that the Post explicitly states that the Pope reacted to "the distribution of condoms" and that the pronoun "it" in "it increases the problem" refers to the distribution [singular], not to condoms [plural]. And yet, the Post continues, "In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect...," implying the Pope spoke about "use" rather than "distribution."

What is the Post reacting to? That is the linguistic, rather the sociolinguistic, question. Whatever it is reacting to, it is definitely not to what the Pope said in this interview or to anything he has said previously, for according to reports this Pope has said so far little about condoms!

Now the next paragraph in the Post goes:

Are condoms foolproof protection against infection by HIV, which causes AIDS? No. Sometimes they break, and sometimes people put them on incorrectly. Still, doctors on the front lines of the fight against the AIDS epidemic established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV, the cause of a disease that has no cure.

Here the Post is trying to give the impression of being objective, by conceding that condoms are not foolproof since they are misued and break sometimes--addressing an issue which has nothing to do with what the Pope said. The Pope spoke of 'distribution,' but the Post completely ignores it and goes after what happens when condoms are 'used'. Improper use and breakage of condoms have nothing to do with the massive distribution of condoms, which is the target of the Pope's criticism. The Pope definitely doesn't state or imply that condoms are ineffective because they break or because people misuse them!

What is paradoxical is that the Washington Post tries to be so very commonsensical and enlightened by insinuating that it is not so unrealistic as the Pope, while failing to realize that in fact, it is even more unrealistic than the Pope in assuming that the mere distribution of condoms leads to reduction in AIDS, when not even in Washington, D.C. such a causal correlation has been established.

Moreover, as is well-known, condoms must be worn consistently and correctly in order to be effective; but "the world isn't perfect" as the Post wisely reminds us, and so the Post is as unrealistic as, if not even more unrealistic than, the Pope in presuming that most people wear the condom consistently and correctly and thus contribute to reducing HIV. "The evidence says so," says the Post confidently contradicting the Pope, but the evidence actually is against the Post! Surveys show that most people do not use the condom correctly or consistently--and hence the reduction of HIV due to condom use is negligible [See Dr. Green's interview below]!

The distinction between "use" and "distribution" is not mere semantic nit-picking! In the given context of Africa, the "distribution" that the Pope criticized has been identified as a major problem by even secular researchers. No one disputes that under laboratory conditions condoms help reduce HIV; but the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on buying and distributing condoms as if they are the panacea for AIDS has been questioned by many researchers, the most notable being Edward Green of Harvard University. As an academic, the Pope must have read Green's writings and those of others like him, and that was what prompted him to criticize the distribution. Benedict, a life-long academic, is too smart to say that condoms must not be used because they break sometimes!

Discourse-wise it seems obvious that the Post and many other newspapers like it are simply reacting to some stimulus that is not in the given discourse. There is clearly some misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or failure of communication. What triggered the failure can only be speculated.

Perhaps they see the Pope--the representative of a religion that is known to discourage extramarital liaisons and the use of prophylactics in marital unions-- saying something about condoms for the first time, and immediately react to what he might have said or intended. They ignore the immediate context and the actual sentence, because they have nothing to say about it, and jump to a related topic about which they have much to say.

It could be that they create a straw man in order to attack him and push their own pro-prophylactic values. As is obvious, it is the strawman, not the Pope, who said anything about the actual use of condoms.

Or it could be that they are not aware of the debate among African experts on the merits and demerits of distributing an excessive amount of condoms!

If even classy newspapers misinterpret the Pope, one can imagine what goes on in blogosphere! I read a few blogs, and they are hilarious. They offer lots of fodder for miscommunication research. Most critical bloggers simply give AIDS statistics as if the stats alone are enough to prove their point that the Pope is wrong (a strategy adopted by the Post too!). They conveniently ignore the statistics related to condom distribution and the fact that the Pope has no dispute with statisticians. Most tend to criticize the Church's anti-prophylactic stand, but that's an entirely different issue unrelated to what the Pope said about the African situation. The condom use policy is not the one under discussion. Blogosphere also reveals that there is no shortage of 'wise' men and women who enjoy giving the Pope derogatory titles wholly based on their own ignorance and subjective interpretation!

Setting the study of miscommunication aside, I shall leave the readers with this thought-provoking quotation from National Review Online:

“The pope is correct,” [Edward C.] Green [Director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies] told National Review Online Wednesday [3/18], “or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that “condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”

“There is,” Green adds, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

Green added: “I also noticed that the pope said ‘monogamy’ was the best single answer to African AIDS, rather than ‘abstinence.’ The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).”
Readers who may like to pursue this topic will find the following URLs of interest. Any Internet search on the topic will bring up many more links. I invite the readers, if they can, to keep track of anyone who has paid attention, especially in their criticism, to the fact that the Pope spoke of 'distribution' and not 'use' of condoms. My guess is the count will be zero!

NRO quoting Green on Pope

Wisom of Whores: Is the Pope a Scientist?

Washington Post: Condom Sense

UNAids and myth of condoms efficacy against Aids [Some behind the scene politics!]

Pope Benedict XVI

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cosmic God and Templeton Prize 2009

Bernard d'Espagnat
There was no report of the Templeton Prize recipient in today's (3/17) newspapers in Japan. It may appear tomorrow... At any rate, I was drawn to the news about the award since the recipient, Bernard d'Espagnat, happens to be a top-class scientist, a Catholic by upbringing ("he was brought up a Roman Catholic but did not practice any religion and considered himself a spiritualist," according to Reuters), and a bold thinker who reflects on the limits of science.

My interest in the award was also provoked by a Science and Religion Symposium that I watched on the Internet. This International Symposium was attended by leading atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, & Sam Harris, and a few pro-religion members including a representative from the Templeton Foundation. Several atheistic scientists criticized the Templeton Foundation and accused it of bias. There was even a proposal from one of the atheists that the award must be given to Richard Dawkins for his 'great' contributions questioning the very need for religion. The Templeton representative gave a soothing reply denying bias; however, he was in a rush and departed soon after his short talk, leaving the crowd to boo him behind his back and to continue complaining about the Templeton Foundation. Overall it looked like the atheist crowd didn't see any point in trying to link religion/spirituality and science. They were all out to have religion mercilessly 'executed' or at least put away among nonsensical superstitions.

In this context, it's interesting to see that the award this year (2009) was given to a practicing scientist and philosopher of science, especially since last year (2008) the Templeton Prize was awarded to a Catholic priest cosmologist, Prof. Michael Heller of Cracow, Poland.

D'Espagnat, 87, is French and professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Paris-Sud university. He studied or collaborated with some of the greatest scientists of the last century, including Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and John Bell. His special research interests are quantum physics and its implications to philosophy. He wins one million UK pounds in prize money.

What does he say relating science and religion? Reuters gives the following summary:
Classical physics developed by Isaac Newton believes it can describe the world through laws of nature that it knows or will discover. But quantum physics shows that tiny particles defy this logic and can act in indeterminate ways.

D'Espagnat says this points toward a reality beyond the reach of empirical science. The human intuitions in art, music and spirituality can bring us closer to this ultimate reality, but it is so mysterious we cannot know or even imagine it.

"Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated," he said. "On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being."

In a sense, what d'Espagnat says seems identical to what ancient religious philosophers like Sankara of India [8th century]or Thomas Aquinas of Italy [13th century] have said. That God defies science, human knowledge, and human grasp is an essential theme of most religious thinkers. That's what led Sankara to posit Nirguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-without-attributes, i.e., God of whom we humans can say little or only in the negative] and Saguna Brahman [the Brahman/God-of-attributes, i.e., God as we humans try to understand and formulate, using inadequate language]. The "mystery" is simply the inability of a finite being trying to grasp the infinite being, or analogically of a cup trying to hold all the water of the sea, or of a well-frog trying to grasp the wonders of the world outside the well.

The following, also from Reuters, elaborates on d'Espagnat's thinking:
Some baffling discoveries of quantum physics led him to believe all creation has a wholeness and interrelatedness that many scientists miss by trying to break problems down into their component parts rather than understand them in larger contexts.

One of these is entanglement, the way that paired subatomic particles remain linked even if they move far apart, so that experimenting with one automatically effects the other without any apparent communication between them.

This view clashes with the materialist outlook widespread among scientists.

"Materialists consider that we are explained entirely by combinations of small uninteresting things like atoms or quarks," said d'Espagnat, whose latest book in English -- "On Physics and Philosophy" -- was published in 2006.

"I believe we ultimately come from a superior entity to which awe and respect is due and which we shouldn't try to approach by trying to conceptualize too much," he said. "It's more a question of feeling."

Although they cannot be tested, the intuitions people have when they are moved by great art or by spiritual beliefs help them grasp a bit more of ultimate reality, d'Espagnat said.

"When they hear very good music, people who like classical music have the impression they get at some reality that way. Why not?" he asked.

It looks to me that d'Espagnat's observations are very traditional and compatible with the views of religious thinkers. What's significant is perhaps that he, as a scientist, espouses and buttresses them with science-speak, encouraging the average believer who may be overawed by scientists who pooh-pooh religion, God, and faith.

Amanda Gefter, writing in the New Scientist, quotes the following lines of d'Espagnat as representative of the science-religion bond that he espoused and that drew the attention of Templeton Foundation:
There must exist, beyond mere appearances … a 'veiled reality' that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly. In turn, contrary to those who claim that matter is the only reality, the possibility that other means, including spirituality, may also provide a window on ultimate reality cannot be ruled out, even by cogent scientific arguments.

Gefter points out that d'Espagnat calls the "veiled reality" a Being or Independent Reality or even "a great, hypercosmic God".

Although Gefter believes "that drawing any spiritual conclusions from quantum mechanics is an unfounded leap in logic," she seems satisfied that the Templeton Foundation is not biased since d'Espagnat's views don't add much weight to any institutional religions.

It seems that d'Espagnat's views, like most philsophical views, are subject to numerous qualifications, modifications, refinements, and interpretations. It may be an error to take him as an advocate of institutional religions. However, religions are ultimately pointers to God--not an end in themselves--and in this broad view believers of all religions may find something inspirational in d'Espagnat... as they will also in Sankara and Thomas.

Here are the references for further reading

*Gefter, Amanda. "Concept of 'hypercosmic God' wins Templeton Prize."

*Times Online

*Reuters Report

*The Templeton Foundation

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sophia University in Cambodia

After paying a 20US$ admission fee and flashing the ticket to one of the numerous security agents scrutinizing foreigners (native Cambodians don't need a ticket), you are ready to enter the premises of Angkor Wat. The first view you get is of a magnificent causeway, constructed with large slabs of stone, over a huge 190-meter-wide moat that surrounds all the four sides of the Wat premises. As you step on to the causeway, you'll notice uneven edges, pits, chipped corners, and a few unwalkbable areas. When you have advanced almost half the distance, you'll see on the left a large board stating prominently that repair work is going on thanks to the involvement of Sophia University Angkor International Mission!

Sophia Mission Logo
Yes, our little university has a pride of place in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, where numerous Cambodian cultural assets such as the Angkor Wat are. The board along the causeway shows photos of the opening ceremony after partial restoration, and you can see in them the faces of Yoshiaki Ishizawa, Sophia University President, and Toshiaki Koso, S.J., Sophia University Chancellor, along with the chief dignitaries of the country. The repairwork, whose planning began perhaps in the early 1990's, is only partially over and is being continued even now.

Prof. Ishizawa lectures
Thanks to the initiatives of President Ishizawa, Sophia University has been involved in Cambodian activities for many years. As he himself likes to acknowldege, he was introduced to Cambodia when he was a student by the jovial and affable French professor Fr. Paul Rietsch, S.J. Since then, he has become an avid researcher, and subsequently scholar, of Cambodia. According to rumors, currently he is the most knowledgable Japanese authority on Cambodia. He appears frequently on Japanese TV programs presenting his discoveries and introducing Cambodia, always with a face that exudes uncontrolable enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

Sophia Logo at Kdei
Currently, Sophia's name may be found not only on the causeway to the Angkor Wat, but also on several other Cambodian locations. Most notable perhaps is Sophia's name at the entrance to Banteay Kdei, another temple complex near Angkor Wat. Apparently Sophia Mission in Cambodia has been entrusted with the task of conducting excavations at this site--built by Emperor Jeyavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century--and the Sophia team has been busy digging, cleaning up, and inventorying there for several years.

Kdei Premises
It was here at Banteay Kdei that the Sophia team discovered quite unexpectedly in March 2001 an extraordinary collection of 274 Buddhist objects, including many ritually decapitated Buddha statues, a stone pillar with about 1000 carved Buddhist images, and several 'unbeheaded' Buddha images. This was such a rare and marvelous find that it was reported in several local and international newspapers, and those involved in the discovery also have written academic articles [see Marui, Masako. 'The Discovery of Buddhist statues at Banteay Kdei temple', _Journal of Sophia Asian Studies_, 19 (2001); Ishizawa, Yoshiaki. 'Special issue of the inventory of 274 Buddhist statues and the stone pillar discovered from Banteay Kdei Temple', _Renaissance culturelle du Cambodge_, 21 (2004), 2 vols.] Some of these statues are in excellent condition as if made only yesterday!

Kdei Sophia Discovery
Thanks to this remarkable discovery of Buddhist relics, Sophia became involved in putting them all in the specially constructed Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum in the northern province of Siem Reap. It is said to have been built at an expense of one million US dollars, with generous donations from Japan. In display at this museum are all the Buddhist objects that the Sophia team excavated at the Banteay Kdei Temple. The next time you go to Angkor Wat, make sure to visit the museum and appreciate the plaque honoring Sophia University! (Entrance fee 3 US$).

Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum
Sophia also has a rather luxurious (by Cambodian standards) research center in Siem Reap, close to the Spean Neak Bridge, by the side of the river. It has a nice front-yard, an altar for a guardian deity, a quiet watch-dog, generous office space, and several rooms for visiting researchers. Two academics represent Sophia's interests there, Mr. Satoru Miwa (Site Manager and Research Fellow of Institute of Asian Cultures) and Ms. Chie Abe (Researcher and coordinator). They welcome visitors generously and give them a guided tour of their offices and explain the kinds of work they do there. Given the large number of Japanese tourists and their own heavy workload, they can't serve as tour guides to temples in the city, but they really go out of the way to assist visiting Sophians...

One of the excavated Buddhas
Although I've examined several Sophia-related Websites, I can't find any single one in English giving a comprehensive picture of the history and activities of Sophia's work in Cambodia. There seem to be quite a lot of information in Japanese, for example, at the site entitled Sophia University Angkor International Mission: This page, in fact, has some English documents (see, some easily identifiable, but some hidden among pages with Japanese titles.

Here I list a few significant web-pages that may be of interest:

(1) Various English documents are listed among Japanese ones here at the official Sophia University Angkor International Mission site

(2) Here's an official document concerning Sophia University activities posted at APSARA, the Cambodian Government's Autorité pour la Protection du Site et l'Aménagement de la Région d'Angkor ("Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap").

(3) "Sophia University team finds Kannon pillar in Cambodia." An article reporting the discovery of Buddhist objects, published in _Yomiuri Shimbun_ (August 25, 2001) and currently preserved at _Buddhism Today_

(4) Sophia University Angkor International Mission: A Japanese/French webpage located at Sophia University. Although the text is not English, there are interesting photos of the excavation site and the fantastic finds.

[This blogger was in Cambodia for about three weeks and just returned to Japan.]