Trump call with Turkish leader led to US pullout from Syria
By MATTHEW LEE and SUSANNAH GEORGE
Friday, December 21
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies, and over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against the Islamic State, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.
Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two officials briefed on the matter said.
The Dec. 14 call, described by officials who were not authorized to discuss the decision-making process publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, is a view into a Trump decision with profound consequences, including the resignation of widely respected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon all declined to comment on the account of the withdrawal decision.
U.S. troops first moved into Syria in 2015 to fight the Islamic State group, a year after the Pentagon first launched a campaign of airstrikes against the extremists in Iraq and Syria. Local ground forces with close U.S. support slowly pushed back IS in the years that followed and by the beginning of 2018, the extremists had lost more than 90 percent of the territory they once held.
Despite losing the physical caliphate, thousands of IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and the group continues to carry out insurgent attacks. Local commanders warn the group could easily move back into territory it once held if American forces completely withdraw.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arranged the Dec. 14 call a day after he had unsuccessfully sought clarity from Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu about Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based.
Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.
But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.
The officials said the conversation set off a frantic, four-day scramble to convince the president either to reverse or delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal. Trump, however, was unmoved, they said.
“The talking points were very firm,” said one of the officials, explaining that Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the U.S. and Turkey work together to address security concerns. “Everybody said push back and try to offer (Turkey) something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”
Erdogan, though, quickly put Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated. “Why are you still there?” the second official said Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.
With Erdogan on the line, Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey andspecial envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1 percent of its territory, the officials said.
Bolton stressed, however, that the entire national security team agreed that victory over IS had to be enduring, which means more than taking away its territory.
Trump was not dissuaded, according to the officials, who said the president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both Bolton and Erdogan.
Caught off guard, Erdogan cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, according to one official. While Turkey has made incursions into Syria in the past, it does not have the necessary forces mobilized on the border to move in and hold the large swaths of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are positioned, the official said.
The call ended with Trump repeating to Erdogan that the U.S. would pull out, but offering no specifics on how it would be done, the officials said.
Over the weekend, the national security team raced to come up with a plan that would reverse, delay or somehow limit effects of the withdrawal, the officials said.
On Monday, Bolton, Mattis and Pompeo met at the White House to try to plot a middle course. But they were told by outgoing chief of staff John Kelly and his soon-to-be successor Mick Mulvaney that Trump was determined to pull out and was not to be delayed or denied, according to the officials. The trio met again on Tuesday morning to try to salvage things, but were again rebuffed, the officials said.
The White House had wanted to announce the decision on Tuesday — and press secretary Sarah Sanders scheduled a rare briefing specifically to announce it. But the Pentagon convinced Trump to hold off because the withdrawal plans weren’t complete and allies and Congress had not yet been notified, according to the officials. The first country aside from Turkey to be told of the impending pull-out was Israel, the officials said.
Word of the imminent withdrawal began to seep out early Wednesday after U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel started to inform his commanders on the ground and the Kurds of the decision.
Following the official announcement the White House emphasized that the U.S. will continue to support the fight against IS and remains ready to “re-engage” when needed. But in a tweet, the president said U.S. troops would no longer be fighting IS on behalf of others.
“Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!”
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.
Yes, there is a war between science and religion
December 21, 2018
Author: Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago
Disclosure statement: Jerry Coyne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
As the West becomes more and more secular, and the discoveries of evolutionary biology and cosmology shrink the boundaries of faith, the claims that science and religion are compatible grow louder. If you’re a believer who doesn’t want to seem anti-science, what can you do? You must argue that your faith – or any faith – is perfectly compatible with science.
And so one sees claim after claim from believers, religious scientists, prestigious science organizations and even atheists asserting not only that science and religion are compatible, but also that they can actually help each other. This claim is called “accommodationism.”
But I argue that this is misguided: that science and religion are not only in conflict – even at “war” – but also represent incompatible ways of viewing the world.
Opposing methods for discerning truth
My argument runs like this. I’ll construe “science” as the set of tools we use to find truth about the universe, with the understanding that these truths are provisional rather than absolute. These tools include observing nature, framing and testing hypotheses, trying your hardest to prove that your hypothesis is wrong to test your confidence that it’s right, doing experiments and above all replicating your and others’ results to increase confidence in your inference.
And I’ll define religion as does philosopher Daniel Dennett: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.
Next, realize that both religion and science rest on “truth statements” about the universe – claims about reality. The edifice of religion differs from science by additionally dealing with morality, purpose and meaning, but even those areas rest on a foundation of empirical claims. You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in the Resurrection of Christ, a Muslim if you don’t believe the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, or a Mormon if you don’t believe that the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. After all, why accept a faith’s authoritative teachings if you reject its truth claims?
Indeed, even the Bible notes this: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
Many theologians emphasize religion’s empirical foundations, agreeing with the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne:
“The question of truth is as central to [religion’s] concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusory exercise in comforting fantasy.”
The conflict between science and faith, then, rests on the methods they use to decide what is true, and what truths result: These are conflicts of both methodology and outcome.
In contrast to the methods of science, religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith, defined in Hebrews 11 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In science, faith without evidence is a vice, while in religion it’s a virtue. Recall what Jesus said to “doubting Thomas,” who insisted in poking his fingers into the resurrected Savior’s wounds: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
And yet, without supporting evidence, Americans believe a number of religious claims: 74 percent of us believe in God, 68 percent in the divinity of Jesus, 68 percent in Heaven, 57 percent in the virgin birth, and 58 percent in the Devil and Hell. Why do they think these are true? Faith.
But different religions make different – and often conflicting – claims, and there’s no way to judge which claims are right. There are over 4,000 religions on this planet, and their “truths” are quite different. (Muslims and Jews, for instance, absolutely reject the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God.) Indeed, new sects often arise when some believers reject what others see as true. Lutherans split over the truth of evolution, while Unitarians rejected other Protestants’ belief that Jesus was part of God.
And while science has had success after success in understanding the universe, the “method” of using faith has led to no proof of the divine. How many gods are there? What are their natures and moral creeds? Is there an afterlife? Why is there moral and physical evil? There is no one answer to any of these questions. All is mystery, for all rests on faith.
The “war” between science and religion, then, is a conflict about whether you have good reasons for believing what you do: whether you see faith as a vice or a virtue.
Compartmentalizing realms is irrational
So how do the faithful reconcile science and religion? Often they point to the existence of religious scientists, like NIH Director Francis Collins, or to the many religious people who accept science. But I’d argue that this is compartmentalization, not compatibility, for how can you reject the divine in your laboratory but accept that the wine you sip on Sunday is the blood of Jesus?
Others argue that in the past religion promoted science and inspired questions about the universe. But in the past every Westerner was religious, and it’s debatable whether, in the long run, the progress of science has been promoted by religion. Certainly evolutionary biology, my own field, has been held back strongly by creationism, which arises solely from religion.
What is not disputable is that today science is practiced as an atheistic discipline – and largely by atheists. There’s a huge disparity in religiosity between American scientists and Americans as a whole: 64 percent of our elite scientists are atheists or agnostics, compared to only 6 percent of the general population – more than a tenfold difference. Whether this reflects differential attraction of nonbelievers to science or science eroding belief – I suspect both factors operate – the figures are prima facie evidence for a science-religion conflict.
The most common accommodationist argument is Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of “non-overlapping magisteria.” Religion and science, he argued, don’t conflict because: “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”
This fails on both ends. First, religion certainly makes claims about “the factual character of the universe.” In fact, the biggest opponents of non-overlapping magisteria are believers and theologians, many of whom reject the idea that Abrahamic religions are “empty of any claims to historical or scientific facts.”
Nor is religion the sole bailiwick of “purposes, meanings and values,” which of course differ among faiths. There’s a long and distinguished history of philosophy and ethics – extending from Plato, Hume and Kant up to Peter Singer, Derek Parfit and John Rawls in our day – that relies on reason rather than faith as a fount of morality. All serious ethical philosophy is secular ethical philosophy.
In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the “truths” undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.
Company sues to block order to contain 14-year-old oil leak
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
Friday, December 21
The company that has failed to end a 14-year-old oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is suing to challenge a Coast Guard official’s order to design and install a new containment system to capture and remove the crude before it forms slicks that often stretch for miles.
The federal lawsuit that Taylor Energy Co. filed Thursday in New Orleans asks the court to throw out Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell’s Oct. 23 administrative order. The company faces daily civil penalties of up to $40,000 if it fails to comply with the order.
Luttrell issued it one day after the Washington Post published a front-page story about the leak off Louisiana’s coast. The story included a new estimate that approximately 10,500 to 29,400 gallons (39,747 to 111,291 liters) of oil is leaking daily from the site where a Taylor Energy-owned platform toppled during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
That estimate, contained in a report that the federal government commissioned from a Florida State University researcher, is much higher than previous government estimates and dwarfs the company’s own assessment of the leak’s volume.
“The Coast Guard’s actions were an abrupt departure from the well-verified scientific conclusions in the record and were taken in response to adverse publicity, rather than in response to any imminent and substantial threat to the public health or welfare,” the suit says.
A Coast Guard spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone call Friday seeking comment on the company’s lawsuit against Luttrell and the federal government.
The New Orleans-based company’s suit claims Luttrell has “repeatedly engaged in actions that are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law.”
“Indeed, Taylor Energy fears that her actions may cause an environmental catastrophe,” it adds.
Taylor Energy has argued that performing more work out at the leak site could be dangerous and cause more environmental harm than good. The underwater mudslide that wrecked Taylor Energy’s platform during Hurricane Ivan also buried a cluster of oil wells under mounds of treacherous sediment, preventing the company from employing traditional techniques to plug them.
Taylor Energy plugged nine wells, leaving 16 unplugged. Federal regulators believe oil and gas is leaking from at least one unplugged well. They have warned that the leak could last a century or longer if left unchecked.
The company has insisted there is no evidence any wells are still leaking. It claims residual oil is oozing from sediment on the seafloor. And, in a court filing several years ago, Taylor Energy said experts concluded in 2014 that the sheens contained an average volume of less than 4 gallons per day.
But a 2015 investigation by The Associated Press revealed evidence that the leak is worse than the company, or government, had publicly reported during their secretive response. Presented with AP’s findings that year, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that was about 20 times larger than the company’s estimate.
Taylor Energy filed three separate federal lawsuits on Thursday in the Eastern District of Louisiana. One challenges an Oct. 30 decision by the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a federal regulatory agency that refused to excuse the company from requirements to permanently plug oil wells that could be the source of the leak.
Taylor Energy also sued Couvillion Group LLC, the Louisiana-based company contracted by the Coast Guard to design and construct the new containment system. Taylor Energy claims Couvillion Group isn’t qualified to perform the work and is unfamiliar with the “lengthy and complex history” at the leak site.
“Taylor Energy also placed Couvillion on notice that it will hold Couvillion responsible for any damages, environmental or otherwise, that might arise out of Couvillion’s reckless and grossly negligent activities at the (leak) site,” the suit says.
Taylor Energy sued the federal government in 2016 to recover millions of dollars it set aside for leak-related work. The suit claims regulators violated a 2008 agreement requiring the company to deposit approximately $666 million in a trust to pay for leak response work. The company argued the government must return the remaining $432 million.
During a hearing in September, a government lawyer asked a federal judge to dismiss that suit. The judge hasn’t ruled yet.
Listening to nature: How sound can help us understand environmental change
December 21, 2018
Author: Garth Paine, Associate Professor of Digital Sound and Interactive Media, Arizona State University
Disclosure statement: Garth Paine receives funding for the discussed work from Arizona State University research funding and from two private foundations.
Partners: Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Our hearing tells us of a car approaching from behind, unseen, or a bird in a distant forest. Everything vibrates, and sound passes through and around us all the time. Sound is a critical environmental signifier.
Increasingly, we are learning that humans and animals are not the only organisms that use sound to communicate. So do plants and forests. Plants detect vibrations in a frequency-selective manner, using this “hearing” sense to find water by sending out acoustic emissions and to communicate threats.
We also know that clear verbal communication is critical, but is easily degraded by extraneous sounds, otherwise known as “noise.” Noise is more than an irritant: It also threatens our health. Average city sounds levels of 60 decibels have been shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate and induce stress, with sustained higher amplitudes causing cumulative hearing loss. If this is true for humans, then it might also be true for animals and even plants.
Conservation research puts a heavy emphasis on sight – think of the inspiring vista, or the rare species caught on film with camera traps – but sound is also a critical element of natural systems. I study digital sound and interactive media and co-direct Arizona State University’s Acoustic Ecology Lab. We use sound to advance environmental awareness and stewardship, and provide critical tools for deeper consideration of sound in nature preserves, urban and industrial design.
Arizona State University professor Garth Paine explains the power of listening as a way to experience the natural world.
Sound as a sign of environmental change
Sound is a powerful indicator of environmental degradation and an effective tool for developing more sustainable ecosystems. We often hear changes in the environment, such as shifts in bird calls, before we see them. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recently formed a sound charter to promote awareness of sound as a critical signifier in environmental health and urban planning.
I have spent decades making field recordings in which I create a setup before dawn or dusk, then lie on the ground listening for several uninterrupted hours. These projects have taught me how the density of the air changes as the sun rises or sets, how animal behavior shifts as a result, and how all of these things are intricately linked.
For example, sound travels further through denser material, such as cold air, than through warm summer air. Other factors, such as changes in a forest’s foliage density from spring to fall, also change a site’s reverberation characteristics. Exploring these qualities has led me to think about how perceptual measures of sound inform our understanding of environmental health, opening a new angle of inquiry around psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound.
Altering sound environments affects survival
To engage the public and scientific communities in this research, the Acoustic Ecology Lab embarked in 2014 on a large-scale, crowd-sourced project teaching listening skills and sound recording techniques to communities adjacent to national parks and national monuments in the southwestern United States. After completing a listening and field recording workshop, community members volunteer to record at fixed locations in the parks every month, building a large collection of sound captures that is both a joy to listen to and a rich source of data for scientific analysis.
Imagine how climate change could affect environments’ sonic signatures. Reduced plant density will change the balance between absorptive surfaces, such as leaves, and reflective surfaces such as rocks and buildings. This will increase reverberation and make sound environments more harsh. And we can capture it by making repeated sound recordings at research sites.
In settings where sound reverberates for a long time, such as a cathedral, it can become tiring to carry on a conversation as echoes interfere. Increasing reverberation could have a similar effect in natural settings. Native species could struggle to hear mating calls. Predators could have difficulty detecting prey. Such impacts could spur populations to relocate, even if an area still offers plentiful food and shelter. In short, the sonic properties of environments are crucial to survival.
Listening can also promote stewardship. We use the recordings that our volunteers produce to create musical works, composed using only the sounds of the environment, which are performed in the communities that made the recordings. These events are a wonderful tool for mobilizing people around the issue of climate change impacts.
Mapping sound and weather characteristics
I also lead a research project called EcoSonic, which asks whether psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound correlate with weather conditions. If they do, we want to know whether we can use models or regular sound recordings to predict long-term impacts of climate change on the acoustic properties of environments.
This work draws on psychoacoustics – the point where sound meets the brain. Psychoacoustics is applied in research on speech perception, hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and in industrial design. Until now, however, it has not been applied broadly to environmental sound quality.
We use psychoacoustic analysis to assess qualitative measures of sound, such as loudness, roughness and brightness. By measuring the number of unique signals at a specific location, we can create an Acoustic Diversity Index for that place. Then we use machine learning – training a machine to make predictions based on past data – to model the correlation between local weather data and the Acoustic Diversity Index.
Our initial tests show a positive, statistically significant relationship between acoustic diversity and cloud cover, wind speed and temperature, meaning that as these variables increase, acoustic diversity does too. We also are finding an inverse, statistically significant relationship between acoustic diversity and dewpoint and visibility: As these factors increase, acoustic diversity decreases.
Sounding futures: Art, science and community
Sound quality is critical to our everyday experience of the world and our well-being. Research at the Acoustic Ecology Lab is driven from the arts and based on sensed experience of being present, listening, feeling the density of the air, hearing clarity of sound and perceiving variations in animal behavior.
Without the arts we would not be asking these perceptual questions. Without science we would not have sophisticated tools to undertake this analysis and build predictive models. And without neighboring communities we would not have data, local observations or historical knowledge of patterns of change.
All humans have the capacity to pause, listen and recognize the diversity and quality of sound in any given space. Through more active listening, each of us can find a different connection to the environments we inhabit.