Mindless SJWs Again

Well it’s now more than two weeks into the new year so it must be time for an anti-PC rant. I’m not talking about one of my infamous Microsoft Windows take-downs here, I mean PC in the context of political correctness. I’m sure anyone who reads this blog will be thinking “well, duh” about now, but I have been quite vocal in my criticism of Windows in the past and only became more engrossed in political correctness recently, so I felt I needed to clarify.

So, all that aside, what am I on about this time? Well, I’ve found some more politically correct nonsense, virtue signalling, and inconsistent criticism. So more of the same, but with an interesting twist which you might find interesting. The subject is the new Gillette ad, which many people will have come across by now. It seems to have generated a lot of commentary, both negative criticism and positive support. Needless to say, I am one of the critics. Here’s why…

First, just in case you haven’t seen it, what is this ad? It’s an ad by the Gilette razor company which asks all men to fix the many problems with society which the ad holds them accountable for. This is particularly in the context of the metoo movement.

Here is the dialog on the ad: “Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can’t hide from it. It’s been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off. ‘What I actually think she’s trying to say’. Making the same old excuses ‘Boys will be boys’. But something finally changed ‘Allegations regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment…” And there will be no going back. Because we… we believe in the best in men. ‘Men need to hold other men accountable’. ‘Smile sweetie. Come on’. To say the right thing. To act the right way. ‘Bro, not cool. Not cool’. Some already are. In ways big… and small. ‘Say I am strong’. ‘I am strong’. But some is not enough. ‘That’s not how we treat each other, OK’. ‘You OK?’ Because the boys watching today… will be the men of tomorrow.”

The dialog above is difficult to follow because this isn’t a logical argument about anything, although to be fair, it makes a lot more sense while watching the video. But it is emotionally motivated propaganda, and that disjointed style, with half accusations, hidden insults, and unsupported statements, is fairly typical of what we expect from an ad. If we got an ad for Gilette’s products using similar tricks I don’t think many people would be impressed, so why are some people impressed by this garbage?

The ad was made by, Kim Gehrig, an Australian born director, currently based in London. Her bio claims she “brings a refreshing combination of honesty and wit to her work.” Well I haven’t bothered to watch her other material, but I didn’t see any honesty or wit in this one. And, by the way, what gives a woman the right to tell men how to behave? Would the opposite be OK, or would that be “mansplaining”?

Clearly this is a politically motivated ad based on metoo movement dogma. As I have said in several past posts, I have no faith in the metoo movement now, despite the fact that it probably started out with good intentions. It is now simply a source of political power and quick and easy notoriety for those who participate in it.

So by making ads like this all that has been achieved is to further strengthen a corrupt political power (the metoo movement) and to further divide the rest of the population.

If a company, like Gilette, insists on diving into a political cesspit like this, I think they deserve to suffer the maximum damage possible. At the very least the person who gave the go-ahead for this ad should be fired, but who knows how else the company might suffer, because I think there are a lot more customers who would be insulted by this than those who might find it inspiring.

And maybe a significant backlash is a real possibility, because when I checked, the dislikes for the ad on YouTube outnumbered the likes by a factor of 3 (167K likes, 486K dislikes). And that is an interesting point, too, because who would have thought that most people would dare to vote against such a widely supported movement as metoo?

Well, here’s a little hint for the SJWs: the metoo movement is not as widely supported as you think, but those who oppose it are being shut down in the mainstream media. This sounds like a conspiracy, I know, but sometimes conspiracies really exist. And this is not one in the form of a bunch of people sitting around a table smoking cigarettes and planning on world domination, it is more a subconscious bias in everything the MSM do.

I think the majority of people are thoroughly sick of the hugely privileged celebrities making up stories about how the patriarchy has harassed them. The fact is the complete opposite: the patriarchy (Hollywood, for example) is entirely responsible for their success, despite their lack of any real talent.

Considering that this is ostensibly an anti-bullying video, it is quite ironic how bullying the tone is. Actually, I think condescending and arrogant might be a better description, although those words are conflated with bullying so much by the other side, why shouldn’t I do the same?

And here’s the final, and most important, point: where is the evenness in treatment of this issue?

Let’s assume the issue we want to address is bullying, harassment, and violence. If we looked at the groups responsible for these behaviours there is little doubt that men are more to blame than women. But what other groups are responsible for anti-social behaviour? Well in the US the vast majority of crimes are done by black people, and in New Zealand it is by Maori people. So why not have a campaign aimed at them by a major company those groups use?

And what about global terrorism? The vast majority is carried out my Islamic extremists. So why not have an ad from a company which they deal with a lot (say a Koran printing company, or a Halal food manufacturer) imploring them to moderate the behaviour of the extremists in their group?

So SJWs. Any takers? Not so keen on the idea now, are you?

And that is just one example of the incredible intellectual dishonesty of all of these politically correct people. It’s only OK to stereotype groups when it is a dominant culture you are doing it to. According to them, all men are responsible for the crimes of a small minority, but not all black people are responsible for the far greater proportion who commit violent crimes, and they would never accuse Muslims of being responsible for the minority who commit terrorist acts, even though surveys indicate a significant proportion of Muslims support terrorism to some extent.

When I mention these points to SJWs I usually just get some generic response or just a “deer in the headlights” look, because it is totally obvious that they just haven’t thought about this. They see an issue, an alarm goes off in their tiny brains, they see an opportunity to virtue signal, and they jump on board the good old PC express!

Well you guys carry on doing that, but I’ll be calling you out every time you do it. Call it mansplaining if you want, but if telling the truth is mansplaining then I say bring on more mansplainers!

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We Need the Crazies

Occasionally a really special person comes along who makes a real difference in the world. Most people, even those apparently at the top in their fields, aren’t really doing anything too extraordinary. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap and that certainly seems to apply to political and business leaders, top celebrities, and other highly conventionally successful people as much as it does to anyone else.

In fact these “really special” people are far more rare than just the top 10% (that is, those not in the 90% crap category). Actually, maybe only a few exist at any particular time, so that would put them in the top 10 (just throwing a number out there) out of 7 billion, or 0.0000001%.

So who are these people I am referring to? Well, I have a particular interest in science and technology, so those are the sort of people I pay most attention to. I don’t care so much about politicians, business people, or people involved in the arts (pop and movie stars, for example) although I do recognise they are important too, but just not as much as my “special people”.

When I am forced to think of a few examples, I immediately think of these from the past: Einstein, Newton, Socrates, Aristotle, Galileo, Edison, Ford, Leonardo da Vinci, Tesla, and more recently Steve Jobs, and currently Elon Musk.

I know a bit about three of the more recent examples I gave above – Tesla, Jobs, and Musk – but I am going to comment on the only living example (Elon Musk) in particular here. Maybe the thing which stands out the most to me about all three is their strangeness and their lack of acceptance of social, business, and behavioural norms, and that’s why I think the opportunity these people offer is currently being wasted.

I’m a big fan of Joe Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience” – at least the interviews with scientists, political activists, etc, not so much the MMA, hunting, and stand-up comedy stuff (I’m sure that is also good, but it’s just not in my area of interest right now).

Maybe Joe’s most famous episode was the interview with Elon Musk. It was very obvious from the beginning that Musk is no normal human. Many people would say he is just strange, but I think it goes away beyond that. And famously Musk smoked some weed on that podcast (as well as drinking whiskey, if I remember correctly) so that wouldn’t have helped much!

But this is exactly the sort of thing we need more of. So many people, when they get into a situation where their words and behaviour will be seen and heard by millions are too careful and reluctant to say anything too controversial. The JRE podcast had 90 million downloads a month about a year ago – and probably more now – and is one of the world’s most popular podcasts, so it is a significant way for a person to get a lot of exposure, both good and bad!

Just as an aside, note that even the most popular TV shows don’t get as big an audience as that, so it seems that podcasting is a significant force in the world today.

How many other CEOs of large public companies would talk like Musk did on the JRE and not care? Not many, I think. In fact, when I look at the intensely dishonest political correctness of the chiefs of other big tech companies (not mentioning any names here, am I Google and Apple) I find Musk a very refreshing change.

But he didn’t even say anything which was that politically contentious, because maybe he’s just not that interested in anything so trivial. And that makes me feel quite bad, because I used to be like that too. I never used to take any notice of politics, because it just doesn’t really matter in the long term.

Political fashions change in cycles. For a decade or two free-market economies might be popular until it is realised they don’t work, so the world swings back to more interventionist policies, then when they also fail the cycle repeats. The same happens socially: some stages of history are very liberal until it goes too far and more conservative or populist policies return, and the two endlessly cycle.

So any politician who makes changes based on either left or right ideals will probably have those reversed in a few decades. But scientists and engineers make discoveries and create stuff which is relevant forever, which is why I concentrated on those groups.

I think people like Musk are exactly what we need more of. By “people like” I mean someone who is different, who doesn’t do what his shareholders, political leaders, or the public in general demand of him. I mean someone who will smoke weed and drink whiskey in public because he cares about deeper things than a superficial public image which is so carefully managed for so many others. I mean someone who creates new stuff – no matter how crazy – like high performance electric cars, new ways to get to space (and maybe Mars), tunnels under existing city blocks, and flame-throwers!

Would any of these ideas have got off the ground if they had been checked out by the accounting or PR departments of a large corporation first? I don’t think so. And that is why we need totally irresponsible, crazy dreamers like Musk. People who, when they hear from bureaucrats that a project isn’t viable, just want to do it even more. People who don’t care too much what their company’s share price is, or what a bunch of so-called marketing and business experts think.

It takes an extremely dedicated and courageous person to fight all the barriers in the way of true innovation today and Musk is one of the few who currently exist (in fact, the only one I can think of). But how much better would the world be if the next tier of people could also be allowed to take this path. By that I mean people with great ideas but who don’t have the stubborn attitude and good luck that Musk had (the luck I’m referring to here is the way he was in the right place at the right time when he made his original money).

It would be so much better if more great ideas could be advanced without going through the mediocritisation process which inevitably kicks in once a large organisation gets involved.

Here’s my idea. Every person gets the chance to try out an idea they might have once in their life. The government provides a million dollars to every person to develop their idea and see where it leads. But, a million dollars you say. Where would that come from? Well, according to my calculations it could easily be covered in the US by redirecting the military budget.

And eventually the system would fund itself, because any income from new inventions would be put back into the pool for future funding. Note that the inventor would not have any rights to income from his idea. That would be a deliberate feature of the system to encourage truly different concepts instead of those which are just likely to be profitable. I think the majority of people would still be happy to contribute even with no potential financial benefit, because it is exactly the people who just want to make some easy money I would want to discourage.

Just think what the world would be like if we had millions of ideas like Elon Musk’s. Well, to be fair, maybe only a tiny fraction of all the ideas might be useful, but in the US that still means thousands. And the rest if the world should participate too, because the only reason I am concentrating on the US here is that is where Musk lives, and that is a country with an obvious massive military budget which could be diverted.

Human civilisation is underachieving because we have created a system which discourages true innovation, and blocks ideas from being advanced, and slows down development of new projects through layers of meaningless bureaucracy. We need a way to make use of all of the good ideas out there, instead of relying on the occasional exceptionally brilliant freak just getting lucky and acquiring enough cash that he can do what he wants.

And the crazier the person looks the better. Can anyone imagine an impractical, dope smoking, whiskey drinking, dreamer like Musk having any way to progress his ideas if he hadn’t got lucky and made all that money earlier in his life? No, instead we have a class of mediocre managers, with no original ideas at all, in charge.

And we need the crazies to save us from that.

Who’s to Blame?

Blame is a common discussion point for individuals from many backgrounds. It is something I constantly hear about from poorly informed people who usually put little real thought into any topic they might be discussing, but it is also an issue intensely debated by the most intelligent and deepest thinking philosophers.

But neither side seems to necessarily have a very broad view on the subject. I once debated a well-known intellectual (I can’t mention his name here) on free will, and how we should apportion blame, and he didn’t have a well thought-out view at all. Essentially his point was that free will must exist, because if it didn’t, we would have no basis to hold people accountable for their actions.

It seems to me that that argument shows a lack of logic, in fact there is a clear logical fallacy there at work (probably the argument from final consequences, or maybe a tautology). My point is: you can’t claim something must exist just because you don’t like the ethical consequences of it not existing.

I have a hard science background (university undergrad level biology, chemistry, computer science) although I do have some aspects of social science as well (psychology) but when I studied psych they did have a strong bias towards evidence-based studies. My opponent was an academic social scientist though, so it seems that maybe he just thought differently. And by “differently” I really mean wrongly!

There are two ways to examine the ideas of free will and responsibility: what makes logical sense from a philosophical perspective, and what the evidence from science shows us empirically.

Firstly, if we follow the logic imposed by naturalism and reject any dualist ideas then it seems to follow by necessity that there is no free will, because we are just collections of particles which are controlled by the most basic laws of physics. That means that blame cannot really be assigned to an individual. Note that the opposite is also true: if people cannot be blamed for their bad behaviour, then equally they cannot claim praise for their positive achievements either.

If there is an extra element to conscious self-awareness which is not apparent to modern physics then everything changes, but it’s hard to see what that might be, and dualists are suspiciously inconsistent and vague on what the extra quality whose existence they propose might actually be.

But what about the second source of evidence? Well all the science seems to support my opinion. And the situation might be even more clear than I have previously said because there is some evidence that the old nature versus nurture debate is swinging more in the favour of nature.

I have discussed some of the research on this in the past so in this post I want to concentrate on the ideas I heard an interview with Robert Plomin, an expert on behavioural genetics. He claims that most of what we achieve and the problems we suffer from are of genetic origin, and that a DNA analysis at birth is highly predictive of success.

He is most well known for his twin studies, and he says these indicate environment has some influence, but that it is minor compared to genetics. I have heard various opinions on this, but it is hard to arrive at an overall estimate of the relative importance of the two. However it does seem that the greater significance of genetics is being more recognised as more research is done.

There is one relevant issue which should be mentioned at this point, though. That is that extreme environmental factors can make a big difference, potentially making them more important than genetics. So if a person with great genetics grows up in an abusive or deficient environment (such as having poor nutrition, no learning opportunities, etc) then the environmental factors might be the most significant. But the same could also apply to extreme genetics: it’s possible that someone sufficiently gifted might overcome serious environmental adversity.

Here’s an interesting outcome of this theory: what parents do isn’t a big deal, and they’re not to blame for badly behaved children. Plomin says parents have much less control than we previously thought. A person’s personality comes mostly from their genetics, and who brings them up is not that important. they can change behaviour, but not the underlying personality. He advises parents to relax, and just let their children be what they want to be.

So the debate seems to be about how much influence people get from their genes and their environment. Note that both of these seem to be external influences beyond the individual’s control. So how does free will fit in with this? Maybe it doesn’t.

We are controlled by our genes, which we can’t change. That is influenced by our external environment, which we can’t change. And there seems to be no place for free will in any other form.

If there’s no free will what right do we have to blame people for doing something, like a crime, which they have no control over? What justification is there for rewarding a person who is successful, like winning a Nobel Prize, because of talents they have through their genetics? Of course, most people don’t act as if free will doesn’t exist and maybe that is something they can’t change either.

In the end, even if free will doesn’t exist, we probably don’t have any choice (see what i did there?) but to act as if it does. But we should be a bit less accusatory towards people who commit crimes, because maybe they really didn’t choose to do them. And while we should celebrate the achievements of the most brilliant people we should also remember that it it’s just luck that they ended up that way.

In fact all the both good and the bad actions of people are just the opposite ends of the statistical outcomes of physical laws. Who really is to blame?

Less of This Please!

OK, for the first post of the new year I think I should make some comments on how I think this year could be better than last. And since I am too lazy to create a list myself, and just happened to find a list of 2018 problems we don’t want in 2019 on a New Zealand newspaper’s site, I will select some of their ideas from various areas (because there were far too many to comment on them all).

So here’s the list…

Plastic bags and straws. There are many environmental issues we should be trying to fix. Plastic bags are a problem, but are they really a big enough problem to be the real focus of so much of our attention? I don’t think so, but I do think people who use less plastic bags and think they are making a significant contribution to the environment probably find it easier to justify creating a lot of atmospheric carbon on their next international flight.

Using the word “literally” wrong. Yeah, I find this really amusing, along with a few other common issues I often see with language use. In fact when I hear someone literally had their head explode after listening to a great metal song, or literally had their mouth burst into flames when they ate some chilli, I think “I would have liked to have seen that”.

Hysteria over every Donald Trump tweet. I agree. This is getting a bit tedious. Surely what Trump says on Twitter should not be generating too much consternation any longer because we know he might say the exact opposite tomorrow, or just say that we are reading it wrong. Let’s just move on, people.

Black face. It’s 2019, not 1919. Well yes, I don’t think there is a lot wrong with most of these quite innocent activities which are often seen as racist, but really, knowing the current environment of political correctness, why would you do this unless you had a really good reason to?

Climate change deniers and anti-vaccination activists. Sure. Many people are getting pretty sick of reality deniers of various types. I totally support any genuine effort to challenge the accepted norms, but anyone doing this should make sure they have some really good reason to do it, and some really good evidence on their side. Listening to the same old stuff from these denial groups is becoming tiresome.

Twitter. It’s turned into a cesspit of hate. Well that really depends on who you follow, I guess. I use Twitter quite a lot, and I find it really useful. If I changed who I followed I could certainly turn it into a cesspit, but it is really what you want it to be. I do have to say here, that I enjoy a certain amount of the conflict there, but clearly it’s a matter of getting a good balance.

Junk mail. Not many people would disagree with the idea that junk mail is annoying, but that’s all really. It’s just so easy to delete unwanted messages that I wonder why people get so upset with them. I also think there are interruptions to our real lives which are more difficult to deal with, and far greater threats to our on-line lives (malware, for example).

Over-enthusiastic whooping and cheering, at meetings, concerts or any event. We’re not America and this isn’t an Oprah Winfrey show. Absolutely. I hate Oprah Winfrey’s and other similar shows. They are just so fake and annoying – in other words, they are so American! So please, let’s not go that way here too.

Facebook chain letters, “99% of you won’t share this”. How right you are. I guess the challenge here is to be in the 1% but I really cannot see the appeal in these things. They do tend to be the most inane nonsense and I never share them.

The gender pay gap. Of course, I don’t agree with this one, because any pay gaps which exist have very little to do with gender. Laws have existed for years stating that men and women must be paid the same amount for the same work, so if the alleged gap is due to them doing different work then we need to look at the bigger picture of how different jobs are valued, which is nothing to do with gender.

Long meetings. I don’t go to meetings so this isn’t a concern to me. But 90% of people would agree and the 10% who still think meetings are valuable are probably the management types who do nothing except waste their time at meetings. If they admitted meetings were pointless (which they usually are) they might as well just not turn up at work. Hey. No more managers. Great idea!

Sexual harassment. Sure, but can we draw a line somewhere so we all know where normal human interaction ends and harassment begins, because at the moment it seems to me that harassment is just anything that a person wants to define for their own personal or political purposes. It’s got so silly that some people just ignore every case where harassment is claimed under the assumption that it’s just another example of this hypersensitive victim culture. Since really harassment undoubtedly occurs let’s just leave the word for that.

Few women in positions of power. The top job in New Zealand is prime minster and that job is currently held by a woman. There are also many other women in high ranking positions, and most of them are pretty useless too. But to be fair, most men in positions of power are also useless, so that isn’t the woman’s fault specifically. In realty we need less positions of power. Why should one person (man or woman) have power over another? That is the cause of many of our other issues.

IT issues. As an IT consultant myself I can understand this one. But I do have to say that, considering how many IT systems there are out there, how many interactions people have with computing devices every day (including computers, phones, tablets, etc), and how new some of the technologies we use are (the modern form of the internet itself is only 20 years old) IT issues are not as common as many people might think.

Abortion in the Crimes Act. I have commented on several occasions about how unsure I am about the subject of abortion. It seems to me that some control is required, but the idea that it should be removed from the crimes act does make some sense. Of course, there are many other “crimes” which should be seen as something where the person requires help rather than punishment.

Child poverty. Not many people would say they want to see more child poverty, but there would be considerable debate on what poverty really is, what the cause of it is (is it the person in poverty, or is it the economic system), and what to do about it where it does exist. Until some agreement is possible on these, it will probably get worse.

Kanye West rants. I’ve only ever heard short segments of these rants, but I do have to say that I find them quite amusing. But I would prefer it if all celebrities just shut up and made no comments about their political beliefs, because it’s hard to think of many who aren’t just pathetically out of touch with reality.

Rumours of a Friends reunion. It’s not happening! Well I certainly hope not, because Friends just has to be the most inane drivel in the history of television. Actually I probably am indulging in a bit of hyperbole there, because there are many other terrible programs too, and there was the odd scene in Friends which was mildly funny.

Marvel superhero movies with more than 12 superheroes. Yes, please stop. Actually don’t do any superhero movies at all, OK? They really might be suitable for kids and people with substandard IQs, but who would really want to watch this stuff?

Celebrities pushing weight loss products on social media. As I said above, celebrities should not be allowed to speak at all. Actually, they should just be locked up in a room somewhere until they are ready to act or sing or do whatever they do as a celebrity. Really, in most cases, they shouldn’t even be allowed to do that!

More reality shows. I admit that on a few rare occasions I have got a little bit hooked on some reality shows, especially cooking competition shows which I quite like for some reason, but most are just terrible. They go on and on for weeks with nothing really happening, the sense of fake drama is just sickening, and many are just thinly veiled excuses to advertise stuff. Just stop it.

Auto-tuning. Well I guess it has it’s place, and it’s the end result that really matters. It seems that it has been a long time since genuine vocal skills were an important part in becoming a music celebrity, so why not help those more challenged in this area with technology. Maybe they won’t sound quite as bad as they do now. Actually, it probably wouldn’t help much considering the standard of the basic material.

That’s probably enough for now. In general, I don’t think any of those are really that important, because the real issues are much more deeply ingrained in our society, and these are really just symptoms of the deeper malaise.

So what would be the one thing from 2018 I would like to see less of in 2019? Probably politically correct BS. We could do with a lot less of that!

The Big Picture, 2018

Well, here we are again, at the end of another year, and this is my final post for 2018. So what are the defining characterics of the year? Well, I could do my usual thing and discuss cool new technology, new science, or other extremely relevant stuff, but why not instead talk about the big political picture?

The real major political theme from the year I think is divisiveness. Some people might disagree and say the bigger problem is the increasing influence of nationalistic right-wing politics, but I think that is just one symptom of the real issue. Because the left are becoming increasingly extreme at least as much as the right, so how can one side be entirely to blame?

For many people there seems to be no room for compromise or moderation. I see myself as a moderate, and I have had major disagreements with both sides of the political spectrum, even when I really try to discuss issues from a fairly central perspective. But it never seems to matter how fair and reasonable I am, I can never make enough concessions to appease the extremists: either the social justice warriors or the far-right nutters.

So if a rational moderate, like myself, cannot find any point of agreement with people whose opinions differ from mine by just half the width of the political spectrum, what chance do people from the two extremes have?

There seems to be very little chance because I think the two extremes have got to their radical positions in reaction to their opponents. For example, the more the left become politically correct and defend those they see as disadvantaged minorities, the more the right have to reject affirmative action and similar interventions. And as the right deny privileges to minorities the left feel a greater need to defend them.

So Donald Trump isn’t the cause of the problems with US politics, he is the result. I heard today a rather good expression of this which was something like: people voted for Trump because they hated Clinton so much that they voted for someone they hated even more just to make a point. While this can be seen as just a cute platitude, I think it has an element of truth too.

Note that I’m not saying one side is correct and the other wrong, and that’s the real problem. They’re both wrong, and that makes the problem so much harder to fix.

Even to a moderate, it’s not clear where the correct balance lies on many of the most significant issues, such as immigration. It seems that building a wall might not be the best answer, but making immigration easier and especially allowing more refugees (either real or fake) into Western countries also seems like it is a bad idea. Yet there don’t seem to be many people discussing intermediate policies on this subject.

The problem seems to be that no one wants to find the best solution, or to find a point of agreement with their opponents. In fact, the right seem to prefer their own facts, perpetuated by fake news, and the left seem to want to shut down alternative views by blocking free speech.

If this is the theme of 2018, is it likely to get better in 2019? Well, that seems a bit implausible, in fact it seems more likely it will get worse. So no matter how bad you think things were this year, you’d better prepare for even more crazy stuff starting tomorrow!

More New Meds

Earlier this year a Chinese medical researcher, He Jankui, announced that he had used CRISPR technology to modify the genetics of embryos during an IVF treatment. The genetic modification was to remove a gene which allowed the HIV virus to attach to cells. The father was HIV positive so this gave his children a chance to be free of AIDS.

I have heard a lot of condemnation towards this work, even though there is no reason to believe there were any negative consequences. In fact, the big hazard with CRISPR – the possibility that other genes were modified accidentally – has already been ruled out.

So what’s the problem? This seems to be a positive step and an interesting demonstration of how this new technology can be used in real medicine, even though it is only being used for scientific research elsewhere. The problem is that there was little control over what was done. There was apparently no ethics approval, no authorisation from a recognised international medical organisation, and no significant pre-treatment trials or other rigorous testing.

Superficially it seems that most people think that this work was unethical, that proper procedures should have been followed, and that the researcher should be disciplined (I later heard that he had “disappeared”, which is a bad sign in China). But I am tempted to suggest that many other people might think this was a good thing, because it might speed up the adoption of a useful technology and bypass a lot of possibly unnecessary bureaucracy.

As far as my opinion is concerned, I am somewhere in the middle. I think there are dangers in proceeding with the use of new technology too quickly, but I also think that progress is stifled by excessive bureaucracy (as it is in almost every area of human endeavour). So it is difficult to establish where the optimum balance is between caution and progress, but in some ways it is good that China is tipping the balance a bit more in the direction of progress.

It would be different if the decisions on how new discoveries could be used were made from an entirely scientific perspective by experts, but they aren’t. Instead, they are made by progressional bureaucrats, who often have backgrounds in science or medicine, but are primarily motivated by management or political objectives instead. I accept that some of that is my opinion rather than established fact, but it is difficult to deny based on past decisions (such as those concerning the use of embryonic stem-cells).

Another possible reason for the criticism might be that some researchers are both worried about, and jealous of, the freedoms their Chinese colleagues get, which is ironic in itself. Maybe they are worried that the excessive bureaucracy in the Western World might allow China to get ahead of them.

There is also the legal risk element of these decisions. Everyone knows there is a significant risk of massive loss through law suits against companies who sell treatments which are later shown to cause harm. That could easily be stifling progress by making people act too conservatively.

Now look at this from a philosophical perspective, specifically through the lens of consequentialism. Are the consequences of this sort of treatment worth the risk in using them?

It seems to me that in most cases they are. If this treatment hadn’t been performed what would have been the counter-factual for the children (twin girls, in this case)? Maybe the parents would have thought the risk was too great and they would not have been born at all, or maybe they might have had to face life battling AIDS. Either way, the current situation seems preferable. So a case could be made to say that the researcher took the most moral action.

And a similar argument could be made in regards to all new medical treatments. People die from diseases which might be cured by new treatments which haven’t yet been through a full testing regime. Applying the consequentialist argument again: letting them die seems worse than almost any possible result from an experimental treatment, especially if the patient makes the decision to go ahead based on full knowledge.

The difference is, of course, that the children born after the current treatment didn’t give permission, because the treatment is done at the single-cell stage of development. And it’s even worse than that, because the treatment at that stage means all the cells in their bodies are affected, including their eggs, which means their children and all other future descendents are also affected.

But it’s easy to over-think this and look for potentially bad results, without balancing that against potentially good ones. In fact, maybe it’s best to forget about the “potentially” part and look at the actual consequences, as consequentialism would suggest.

And we could look at this statistically too. Even if a certain percentage of outcomes were bad, it might still be worth the risk to get the good ones too. After all, that is a standard part of medicine, where there is always a risk of a treatment not working or even possibly making a situation worse.

So, despite the widespread outrage and condemnation I have heard so much of in this case, I don’t think I would agree. At the very least there should be a discussion on where the appropriate balance is between risk and progress, because that doesn’t seem to be happening much now. Potentially it could greatly speed up the introduction of more new meds.

Nothing Trivial

I’ve always said that I don’t see any point in writing blog posts about the things that everyone agrees with, and in expressing these posts in non-controversial ways – and this post will not be an exception to that rule. I’m about to launch into a tirade that’s going to make me look like one of those cantankerous old men who spend half their lives complaining about the youth of today. Actually, that is a lot less controversial than many of my other posts, so maybe this warning wasn’t necessary, but let’s get started anyway…

About a month back senior New Zealand high school students sat their end of year exams (for people in countries with different naming systems for school levels: that is for year 13, or usually the final year at school, or about 17 years old). In one history exam a question asked them to discuss the quote from Julius Caesar that “events of importance are the result of trivial causes”.

It seems like a good, open-ended question, that anyone could write a fairly good essay about, although obviously quoting real events from history would be useful, so some knowledge of the subject would be an advantage. So what’s the problem? Well, apparently a significant number of the students didn’t know what the word “trivial” meant. There’s some obvious irony here, which I might discuss later, but first I should talk about vocabulary in general.

It’s easy just to totally ridicule these students and the education system which seems to have failed them. But different words become more and less popular over time, so maybe this one just isn’t used so much by the young people today. I don’t actually find that particularly convincing, because it seems that other moderately difficult words also flummox this generation.

A local news company did an informal survey on the streets of Auckland to test young people’s understanding of words like trivial, penultimate, bona fide, and expedient. I use all of these words myself and know their meaning, but I thought I would ask a few other people of my generation which gave mixed results. Most knew some of the words or had only poor definitions of them all, but they were far better than the young people tested.

Here are some attempts by the young people at the meaning of trivial. One admitted to having no idea, but guessed that it might mean “a series of events”. Her friend attempted to rescue her by offering “is it like if there’s a battle?” A third person guessed: “trivial – like a trivia? Questions. A bunch of questions.” Yeah, here’s a word they probably do know: fail!

The word “expedient” was possibly an even bigger problem with most admitting to having no idea at all, and it was the same for “penultimate”. Maybe the best responses were for “bona fide”, with guesses such as “a name surgeons use or something” and “is it something to do with the body?” and “a name surgeons use”. Maybe the word “bona” sounds a bit like “bone”.

I knew the exact meaning of these words, plus the Latin origin of bona fide, but I did take 2 years of Latin when I was at school, so I did have a big advantage there. To be fair, people who take other languages more popular today, like Chinese or Maori, could probably answer questions based on those better than I could.

There is one other interesting element to this story I should add. That is that the people taking the exams who didn’t know the words have started a petition to try to force the examiners to show leniency when marking their papers if they didn’t understand a word. Is this another example of the culture of entitlement and fragility we see so often today? I don’t think anyone would have contemplated this sort of action back when I did exams (which was admittedly many years ago).

Another possible issue is the support these young people get from many in positions of authority, who today seem far too scared to stand up to this sort of thing, presumably because they don’t want to get accused of being unsupportive or culturally unaware or for some other fatuous reason.

The New Zealand History Teachers’ Association chairman said in this case a glossary should have been included, and because the exam was not testing comprehension, it was unfair to make that part of the assessment. But surely every question includes elements of comprehension.

A spokeswoman for the Qualifications Authority said the language used in the question was in the expected range of vocabulary for a NCEA Level 3 history student, but the candidates would not be penalised for misinterpreting the word. How anyone could answer the question in any meaningful way without understanding the meaning of an essential word was not stated.

And here’s the ironic element of this that I alluded to above. Maybe the lack of knowledge of words like trivial is because the education system is concentrating on material which is itself trivial. I often hear that first year students coming to university have to be taught all the stuff they should already know before they can even start their real course. I really have to wonder what over 10 years of education is really achieving.

Finally, there is one other element I really just have to mention, although it might be considered by some to be a cheap shot. That is that education is one of the most horribly politically correct areas in academia. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on so-called equality, diversity, and all of those other buzz-words we hear so often. But there is one word I don’t hear much about: quality.

And that’s a bona fide item I list as my penultimate point here, and even if it has an element of political expediency, I hope it isn’t trivial.