Friday, August 26, 2011

Analysis of the War in Libya

I find myself extremely frustrated by the coverage and analysis of the war in Libya. The narrative is of an initial surge of revolt along the coast, with counterattacks by the regime eliminating all western revolt except in Misrata, which barely survived, followed by months of stalemate between east and west, and then suddenly an attack on Tripoli from the interior which has now effectively succeeded. I admit, I am an armchair general, but this seems so clearly wrongheaded to me that even I can do better.

Here is my analysis of the war: the initial revolt was, in the east, so comprehensive as to give the rebels a strong base to west of Benghazi. That was rapidly complemented by control of the borders with Egypt and Sudan. However, to the west and in the rest of the south, the regime was able to counterattack because risings were less strong and uncoordinated. As a result, effectively, the regime was able to control not only that stretch of the seacoast, but, more importantly, the southern borders – which meant that it could buy mercenaries from the starving men of Chad in whatever numbers to supplement existing troops. The counterbalance for the rebels along the coast was NATO bombing, which limited the ability of regime troops to attack within the cities of the coast.

This balance was precarious, for the regime. They needed a guaranteed flow of oil for their tanks. They needed recruits to replace the steady flow of defectors. The rebels had some money worries, but as long as Misrata was in play there would be no effective attacks towards Benghazi, and even if Misrata had fallen it is doubtful that the regime could have pressed home attacks towards Benghazi with the extra men in the face of NATO bombings. No, it was a “stalemate” that in all likelihood could be broken by the rebels but not by the regime.

At this point, a second point of insurrection emerged in the west, on a line from deep in the interior on the Tunisia border towards Gharyan midway along the key Tripoli-to-southern-border road. It was by no means a neat, clean, fully controlled territory; but the playing field was effectively tilted against the regime in that area, since the rebels from Tunisia with local support could muster more people to attack more areas than the regime could send troops to counter them, through a long stretch of tough terrain, in order to drive them back into Tunisia. However, the longer the line from the Tunisian border, the shorter the line to Tripoli, and so there was a reasonable prospect that the line between the two would stabilize before it threatened north-south shipments of oil and mercenaries.

The point when it was clear that this push was breaking the stalemate was well over two months ago, when the rebels managed to start attacking the towns that were the last ones before Gharyan. The moment they could do that, they could threaten the north-south flow, and unless the regime somehow managed to counterattack to send the Nafusa push beyond the range of Gharyan, that threat would remain.

But there was another, equally significant development at about the same time, even further south. The rebels, attacking across a wide swath of desert near the southern border, managed to take two of the towns relatively near that border. As a result, the flow of mercenaries was bound to be badly disrupted.

At this point – well over two months ago – the situation along the coast becomes relevant again. Because the rebels attacking via Nafusa were often only hundreds strong. It may seem unbelievable that regime could not send enough troops to the interior to counterattack effectively; but the fact on the ground is, they did not. Why?

The easy answer is, they were tied down by NATO bombings. However, it is clear that NATO bombings played very little role in the fighting in the interior, neither in the Nafusa region nor near the southern border. Rather, the NATO bombings served only to hinder the regime’s ability to attack, and only along the seacoast.

The correct answer, I believe, is that the regime had neither the personnel to spare nor a way of sending enough of them. The choking off of mercenaries meant that the rebels could replenish their troops after battlefield losses in the interior, while the regime could not. Moreover, the regime could not transfer troops from various areas along the coast, because they were pretty much all tied up facing the rebels along the coast.

It is at this point that the “stalemate” along the coast begins to matter. If the regime had drawn its troops from the east, around Sirte, they would have a long way to travel; they would have to skirt Misrata, with the danger of NATO bombing; and they were fully engaged with Misrata and with Brega, the more or less fluid border between the regime and the eastern rebels in Benghazi. That left the troops in the west, and what the current attacks show is that there were enough regime troops short of Tripoli to repel any attack along the coast, but not enough to counterattack into the interior.

That left Tripoli. However, again, it seems clear that Tripoli troops were fully engaged, in the east toward Misrata, and to some extent in the south to protect the nearby airport and the initial stages of the road and oil pipeline south. In effect, the line of the coast between Tripoli and the Tunisian border could be attacked at any point from the interior, and the regime would be slow to respond and would have little to spare.

Nevertheless, according to reports, the actual attack from the interior was so feeble as to invite disbelief. The number of attackers was about 300; they drove to their target in the equivalent of Jeeps, having little military ordnance; and they were a combination of previously apparently separate smaller groups. It is as if those members of the Harvard Class of 2001 who attended this year’s class reunion had decided to attack Stamford, Connecticut, and had all just grabbed a gun and driven down in their BMWs – and succeeded.

Still, to anyone looking at the situation in the middle of June with a critical eye, it should have been obvious that the rebels had a very good chance of succeeding in whatever they tried. This is because the regime at that point had failed in its counterattack – if it even tried. Reporters didn’t notice it; analysts, preoccupied with the NATO bombings, didn’t notice it; but it was vitally important that the regime not only kick the Nafusa rebels out of the towns they were attacking, but attack the towns beyond them, as well; and the regime didn’t do that.

After mid-June, therefore, the stalemate was definitively over and the end of the regime was only a matter of time. Still, it could have been a matter of a fairly long time. The rebel push could have run out of gas around Gharyan, and it might have been months to a year before the full effects of the loss of mercenaries and oil were felt.

It did not take a year because the rebels at this point, as noted above, took a chance. They basically picked a point on the coast between Tripoli and Tunisia, and the moment they fully took the town before Gharyan, instead of sending their full weight against Gharyan, they immediately sent the bulk of their troops in a headlong dash at Al Zawia, the biggest town on the coast west of Tripoli, and closer to Tripoli than the Tunisian border.

This move reminds one of the remark by Steven Brust, the fantasy author, that battles are won when one side fails to make a mistake at a critical moment. There were certainly endless mistakes by the strategists on either side, and especially the tendency of the rebels to send their troops in to attack positions carefully prepared for maximum casualties by the regime, and the tendency of the regime to expose its troops to NATO bombings unnecessarily, instead of just tying up the rebels inside the towns, where NATO would find it hard to distinguish friend from foe. I believe that once the Nafusa offensive reached a certain point, and the southern border was contested, the rebels were pretty much bound to win; but attacking immediately after the coast was in range was what meant that the war would be won now.

The reason the attack on Al Zawia was successful, and that it was then followed by success on all coastal fronts, was that the attack started a cascade of successes in which regime troops surrendered piecemeal, decreasing the regime’s manpower, and the rebels began to decrease the number of fronts on which they had to engage, allowing that manpower to be funneled into the remaining areas. Thus, the eventual success at Al Zawia meant that troops shipped in from the eastern front, where pressure had eased, could supplement troops from the interior in the attack on Tripoli, and cut off any troops between Al Zawia and the Tunisian border. Before, an attack on the coast over that border had failed. Now, troops have swept along the coast to that border and control almost all of it.

However – and here again commentators seem to me to have entirely missed the mark – the war is by no means over. It is not only that Tripoli is by no means secure; it is that there remain pockets of resistance along the coast (the remaining pockets of resistance in the interior, while huge, represent very little regime military manpower, and certainly not enough to threaten the rebels on the coast in the foreseeable future).

The two key points, right now, are Zuwara and Ben Jawad. Zuwara is pretty much the only holdout along the coast between Tripoli and Tunisia [update: It has now been taken, but attack from the interior is still holding troops in play]. Once that is secure, the rebels will add their manpower there to the troops in Tripoli, tilting the balance in favor of the rebels. Ben Jawad is the only town still contested on the coast to the east of Tripoli. Once that is gone, the rebels from Misrata and those from Benghazi will join hands around Sirte. But based on past experience, both of those events can happen tomorrow, or a month from now; and therefore, the final fall of Tripoli and Sirte could be as much as 2 months down the road, in a worst case scenario.

Nevertheless, I believe that there is just about nothing the regime can do, now, to restore any kind of stalemate. Their troops will keep becoming fewer, the rebels, greater, because of inevitable regime surrenders and lack of any way to add more regime troops. The fact that the regime will run out of supplies is only relevant in that commanders will see that and surrender sooner rather than later.

So let’s list the ways that reporters and analysts would have you think, and the ways I disagree. “The rebels were innocents led by inexperienced and flawed commanders that only won because NATO bombed the hell out of the regime” – flatly wrong. The rebels for the last 6 months have had a steady, smart long-term strategy that was just as important as NATO bombings, and that won the war in the interior, where NATO had very little effect.

“The war was fought and won mostly on the coast.” Wrong again; the stalemate was ended decisively in the interior. “There was a stalemate from March until early August”; nope, there was an increasingly tilted semi-stalemate until mid-June, when the rebels clearly established that they would win. “The war is over”. No; as Yogi Berra once said, “it ain’t over until it’s over”; and the news reports clearly establish that there is still plenty of fighting going on.

This experience has taught me one thing, very clearly; most of the analysts I see and hear are pretty much useless in certain cases, reporters or not. There were analysts and statesmen still talking about the importance of NATO bombing civilians and of the stalemate in the region as little as three weeks ago, while members of Congress questioned the President’s power to bomb Libya as if it mattered any more. Meanwhile, Wikipedia was pretty much the only source I needed to see that things were different. Folks, what’s wrong with this picture? How could it be that, almost universally, the authorities we depend on screwed this up?

I’m only an armchair general, and not a very good one, so I don’t know the answer to that question. But I can tell you, the next time there’s a conflict out there, I’m going to Wikipedia first.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Giving the Devil His Due -- Then Naming Him Evil

Careful readers of one of my previous blog posts will note that I said nothing about the validity of the complaint of scientific misconduct against the “Arctic scientist muzzled.” I had assumed that better commentators would cover that subject quite well. However, thinking about it, it occurs to me that I have a unique perspective on the specifics of the case. So I’d like to lay out what I think happened – and what I conclude it means.

Setting the Stage

Monnett, the scientist, is an employee of the Mining and Materials Service (recently renamed) in the Interior Dept. As it happened, in the summer of 1969 I was an intern at the Office of the Under Secretary of Interior in Washington, so I got a birds’-eye view of Interior, later supplemented by a senior thesis on its workings.
Back then, Interior had two types of Services: “foxes” (the Army Corps of Engineers and MMS) and “chickens” (Fish and Wildlife Service). In very broad terms, foxes would tend to favor the interest of business, while chickens would tend to favor the interest of environmentalists. At the time, new environmental departments were being formed, and the thought was that placing these in Interior would tilt the department more towards environmentalism, both in the department and in its representation in Congress, so that the overall result was a stronger US environmental policy.

As it happened, Nixon chose to place EPA and NOAA in a separate agency to cut down Interior’s power, because he felt Secretary Hickel was being politically disloyal (Hickel himself confirmed this to me). It appears, therefore, that Interior remains today much the same as it was then – with fox and chicken departments, and MMS being one of the foxes. Monnett, his investigators, and his bosses and co-workers all seem to be employees of the MMS.

Monnett had an odd function at the MMS. As part of an earlier compromise between Alaskan native communities and oil companies seeking permits to drill offshore, he was to monitor animal activities vital to these natives – specifically, the bowhead whale migration – to see if oil drilling had any effect on them. It was important to the oil companies and to MMS that drilling not be interrupted for no reason; it was important to the natives that their means of livelihood not be disrupted, and therefore Monnett’s primary responsibility was supposed to be to determine if it was. At the same time, Monnett as a scientist was supposed to provide and analyze “just the facts”.

The Complaint

What I am saying here is pure conjecture, but is my most positive take as to what the person(s) who generated the complaint against Monnett was thinking.

In the years shortly before Monnett’s paper, oil company engineers and/or geologists were probably making complaints about Monnett. He appeared to be changing the statistics for determining problems with bowhead whale migration in the middle of the game, in favor of finding problems. There was friction with his superiors, who were questioning his conclusions. The engineers and/or geologists were credible complainers, who could be expected to understand his math and his experiments. And then the paper arrived.

To the complainer, looking at the paper, it appeared odd. For one thing, it appeared that most of the data in the paper was not collected as part of a designed survey, but rather as the “other” category in a survey on whale migration. Over the last 10 years Monnett himself collected the majority of the data, and the categories in which the data was typically recorded were unclear. In order to get records from 20-10 years ago, Monnett appeared to simply ask his predecessor what he recalled.

Then there were the “statistics” of the paper. In the current year’s data (the only one that seemed to have independent verification) there were only 4 swimming polar bears in the first day’s survey, and 3 dead polar bears in the second day’s survey. Traditionally, this is usually far too small a sample to draw any statistical conclusions at all.

“Scientific misconduct” to me typically means misrepresenting the real data. Switching to legal terms for a moment, Monnett apparently had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to do so. But to show scientific misconduct, Monnett had to actually misrepresent the data. Was there something in the paper that seemed to show data misrepresentation? Well, yes. It might have seemed to the complainer (as an example) that Monnett was claiming that “death of polar bears caused by their attempts to swim to receding ice” was conclusively proven. In other words, Monnett may or may not have falsified the data; but at least he seemed to be claiming that the data proved something that the clearly valid data he had could not possibly support.

Given this, the complainer may have felt he had the equivalent of a “prima facie” case: a case in which the evidence tended to show misconduct, and the burden was on Monnett to show it was untrue.

The Game

In reading the transcript of the interview, it is helpful to think of it as partially a legal “game.” This is the way it apparently worked. The investigators arrived and were surprised to find that Monnett was represented by legal counsel, and they were being recorded. This meant that all of the actors in the interview had specific aims and tasks. The easiest role was that of the lawyer. As a good lawyer, he could be counted on to be quite aggressive in making claims about his client’s innocence, and noting instances where he could claim the investigators themselves were breaking the law.

Monnett himself was walking a careful line. On the one hand, the best way to put himself in a strong legal position was to overwhelm the investigators with details of the things that he had done right. On the other hand, the more he talked, the more possible mistakes he might reveal. Thus, throughout the interview, Monnett is providing massive amounts of detail, trying on the fly to shore up things that might be used to convict him, and trying to avoid being drawn into conclusions beyond what he had already said in the paper.

Meanwhile, the investigators split their role. Gary went through the details of the complainer’s allegation; thus, he focused on data collection, whether the data or conclusions in the paper had been reviewed adequately, and whether the data justified the conclusions. He was, in effect, trying to build the bricks to solidify and support the prima facie case. Lynn was his protector; when he seemed to be saying things that might expose the investigators or the department to legal attack, she would cut him off. Therefore, the investigators as a whole spent great effort in avoiding laying out what the details of the complaint were: these details might alert Monnett to areas of vulnerability and expose the department to counter-actions.

My Verdict – Not Just Not Proven, Innocent

Having heard the prima facie case, let’s analyze the data and the paper based on the information in the interview. What did it show?

First, let’s assume that the data is valid. Can we draw any statistical conclusions at all from it? Actually, yes. 4 and 3 may seem like small deviations from zero, but they follow a string of 20 zeros. The only plausible model I can see in the real world for a null hypothesis, that more than 3 swimming or dead polar bears is “the luck of the draw,” is a lambda probability function, in which the most probable occurrence is 0, the next most probable 1, and so on. Given 20 years of zeros, the only lambda function that would fit would have a probability of less than 1% of seeing 1 swimming/dead polar bear in year 21, and less than .1% of seeing 3 or more. It seems very clear to me that, if the data are valid, it is overwhelmingly likely that something new has happened to cause the swimming and dead polar bears.

All right, how about the validity of the data? Well, the three dead polar bears are clearly valid: there were attested by several other people besides Monnett. The four swimming polar bears are very likely to be valid, both because no one else in the helicopter, hearing the unusual sighting, found anything wrong, and because the death of the polar bears had to be caused by something, and that something was in the context of things highly likely to have been swimming. That leaves the question of whether Monnett omitted previous sightings of swimming and/or dead polar bears.

Actually, that one’s pretty easy to dispose of without recourse to statistics or the likelihood of personal actions. As Monnett makes clear, this was about the first year in which ice had clearly drawn off from the land. In most if not all previous years, Monnett or his predecessor could not possibly have seen swimming polar bears, since there was no water to swim in, just ice. And as for dead polar bears, again, it is overwhelmingly likely that 2 or 3 would have been noted in previous years in any case, since the researchers were trying to note any anomaly and the natives would care about this one, and no one has advanced a clear alternative cause (in previous years) for three to die.

Did Monnett overclaim based on this data? It appears that he said: (1) The numbers of swimming and dead polar bears was unusual, (2) It appears that the deaths were caused by the polar bears’ need to swim to the ice, (3) The 4 and 3 bears in 11% of his total area can be “extrapolated” to 36 and 27 across his entire area and a 25% survival rate (of bears that swam). We’ve already shown that statistically (whether or not he did the statistics), conclusion (1) is completely sound.

As for (2), this is not an overclaim. Something caused the deaths, and the most obvious explanation is the most obvious new factor that should cause an increase in deaths: withdrawal of ice from the land. That’s the equivalent of what Monnett said.
And then there’s (3). As I noted in my previous blog post, “extrapolation” is not an indication that something is highly likely. It’s an indication that if your sample from a population turns up this result, it’s the most likely frequency in the entire population, but not very likely in and of itself – and the frequency in the population is just as likely to be greater than that number as to be less than that number.

Were I a reviewer of such a paper, I would understand its import to be just as Monnett indicated in the interview: an establishment of a result that cannot be explained by the hypothesis of “just random chance”, a proposed explanation for the result that is a logically and physically appropriate model, and an invitation to other scientists to do work to replicate or propose alternative new explanations for the results. I would regard this as an entirely appropriate use of necessarily limited data.

My verdict: the prima facie case is entirely destroyed. Yes, in an ideal case the experiment could have been done better and better statistical tests might have been applied; but they were not needed. Monnett’s paper shows no scientific misconduct and is entirely appropriate to the data.

Why the Devil is in the Follow-on

Having, as I have said, given the “devil” (the complainer) his due, I maintain that it seems very likely that whoever has suspended Monnett has, in fact, been guilty of legal and scientific misconduct himself (or herself). Why? Because of what happened after the interview.

I have shown, I hope, that Monnett established, at the least, a strong prima facie case during the interview that he did not misrepresent the data. From then until now, there have been no public communications, nor communications with Monnett, about the case.

However, a week ago, Monnett was placed on “administrative leave”, and the stated cause was an investigation by the same investigator of allegations that Monnett had mishandled administration of a contract with U. of Alberta as subcontracted researchers into polar bear migration. Moreover, the same paper trail of permissions for his work is apparently available for the contract administration. That means that (1) investigators failed to investigate Monnett’s allegations of research distortion; (2) Monnett was suspended without even double-checking a “prima facie case”, if there was one – since investigators already knew that he typically had a paper trail; (3) Monnett was never cleared of the original charge by the investigators, although that was supposedly their only concern. What seems very likely is that this suspension is the result of proceedings covered by legal requirements that deliberately failed to follow them, both with regard to the paper and the administration. Whatever the relevant law, that suggests to me misconduct according to the law.

It also suggests scientific misconduct. The lack of contact with Monnett about his paper makes it clear that they failed to follow up with him his allegation that his research report had been distorted. Misrepresenting the data in a research report should also be considered scientific misconduct, whether the report is distributed beyond the department or not. And failure to correct a report that you should have known is distorted means that you share in the scientific misconduct, whether you are a scientist or not.

In the abstract, this type of misconduct seems isolated and unimportant. But it is also clear that these issues matter a great deal to everyone. Had the oil companies had a legitimate complaint, and if additional oil had mattered a great deal to the world’s economy and well-being, a Monnett prevention of drilling would have had major negative effects. If a valid Monnett scientific finding is not weighed and responded to appropriately and fossil fuels are indeed causing a global warming disaster, then this suspension and similar actions are equally if not more damaging to the world.
It appears from the only available evidence that those who suspended Monnett have thereby put themselves beyond excuse. I have tried to give the devil his due – is there any way I can avoid now naming him evil?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Final Question -- and Cupcakes

Once upon a time, there was a math professor that gave an exam. When the students entered the testing room, they were given a mathematical framework and a list of problems to solve, each of which built on the solution to the previous one. The professor told them that they must solve all the problems in the time allotted, and that whoever did so, would pass; whoever did not, would fail.

The professor also told them that they should take each proposed problem solution to a machine in the corner. If the solution was correct, the machine would give them a cupcake.

Well, on the first problem some of the students who found the solution first got a bit rowdy and started waving their cupcakes in the faces of those who were slower and teasing them. The professor told them to settle down and stop it, or the professor would kick them out and they would fail.

At that that point, one of the students said to several others: “Look, this test is hard, and I think it’s so hard that none of us is going to pass unless the professor lets us. So the best way to do that is to show the professor that we appreciate all that he has done to teach us, and that we’re trying hard to please him, and we’re good people – not like those rowdy ones. So let’s all work together on each problem, and when we get our cupcakes we’ll keep giving some of them to the professor. And if we give him enough cupcakes, even though we will never answer all the questions, we’ll still pass.”

Many of the students, looking at the nasty problems coming up, were convinced that this was the only way they were going to pass, and so they agreed. But the student did not convince everybody. Some students rejected the idea that the test was impossible, and that passing the exam depended in any way on the professor.

Then there ensued a strange scene. On each problem, the students working together in a group solved the problem faster, and so should have given the machine the solution ahead of the few who were working solo. But many of them were concerned that they didn’t have enough cupcakes to give, and so they were over trying to convince the ones who were doing it alone that they should try to join the group. And sometimes they would succeed, as one of the loners felt that the test was becoming too hard; and sometimes they would lose a member, as some members of the group felt their point of view wasn’t being listened to. And then sometimes one of the group would get hungry and eat a cupcake instead of contributing it; so they had to kick that member out of the group until the member said he or she was sorry. And then they had to spend some time gathering the cupcakes and giving them to the professor. So as it worked out, the loners were solving the problems just about as fast as the group.

And then they got to the problem right before the last one. And it was a really nasty problem. Moreover, because they had been working in a group, the members of the group hadn’t been paying close attention to all the details of the previous solution, so none of them could put it all together and come up with the last step in this solution. And they were really worried that they hadn’t gotten enough cupcakes yet.

So finally one of the loners came up with the solution. And this caused an even bigger argument among the group, but finally one part of the group went over and looked at the loner’s answer, and got the solution – although they didn’t really understand that last step. And now there were two groups. The first group said, we haven’t got enough cupcakes, but if everyone comes back and helps us solve the next-to-last problem, and gives us their cupcakes, we’ll have enough. And the second group said, yes, we solved the next-to-last problem, but if we don’t get the cupcakes for the next-to-last problem from everybody, the first group and the loners, and give them to the professor, the professor will decide that we can’t work together and just aren’t nice enough. And the loners just kept being stubbornly convinced that it was all about solving the final problem.

And now there was frantic activity all over the room. The first group was still trying to solve the next-to-last problem, and badgering the second group and the loners for cupcakes. The second group had given up on the final problem (partly because they still thought it was impossible, and partly because they couldn’t solve it anyway, since they didn’t understand the solution to the next-to-last problem) and was badgering the first group and the loners for cupcakes. And the loners were trying to work on the final problem, and telling both groups that if they weren’t going to help solve the final problem, at least they should go away and stop bothering them. And as they did this, the clock kept ticking; and the end of the exam drew closer; and closer; and closer.

The moral of the story is – no, I’m not going to tell you the moral of the story. Consider this the final question of your exam: what is the moral of this story? If you get it right, you pass; if you get it wrong, you fail.

You can send me some cupcakes, if you think that will help.