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What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

You are probably reading this post on a computer, tablet, or phone with a graphical user interface. You click or tap an icon and something happens. You probably think of that icon as having some meaning, some functionality, some deeper purpose. But, of course, the icon is just a representation for the code that the device is running. Under the surface the nature of reality is vastly more complex and doesn’t bear the slightest relationship to the graphical elements you interact with.

There’s nothing too controversial in that statement, but what if the whole universe could be looked at in a similar way? In a recent podcast I heard an interview with Donald Hoffman, the professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He claims that our models of reality are just that: models. He also claims that mathematical modelling indicates tha the chance that our models are accurate is precisely zero.

There are all sorts of problems with this perspective, of course.

First, there is solipsism which tells us that the only thing we can know for sure is that we, as an individual, exist. If we didn’t then we couldn’t have the thought about existence, but the reality of anything else could be seen as a delusion. Ultimately I think this is totally undebatable. There is no way to prove that what I sense is real and not a delusion.

While I must accept this idea as being ultimately true I also have to reject on the basis that it is ultimately pointless. If solipsism is true then pursuing ideas or understanding of anything is futile. So our whole basis of reality relies on something which can’t be shown to be true, but has to be accepted anyway, just to make any sense of the world at all. That’s kind of awkward!

Then there is the fact that the same claims of zero accuracy of models of the world surely apply to his models of models of the world. So, if our models of reality are inaccurate does that not mean that the models we devise to study those models are also inaccurate?

And if the models of models are inaccurate does that mean there is a chance that the models themselves, aren’t? We really can’t know for sure.

I would also ask what does “zero accuracy” mean. If we get past solipsism and assume that there is a reality that we can access in some way, even if it isn’t perfect, how close to reality do we have to be to maintain some claim of accuracy?

And the idea of zero accuracy is surely absurd because our models of reality allow us to function predictably. I can tap keys on my computer and have words appear on the screen. That involves so much understanding of reality that it is deceptive to suggest that there is zero accuracy involved. There must be a degree of accuracy sufficient to allow a predictable outcome, at the level of my fingers making contact with the keys all the way down to the quantum effects working within the transistors in the computer’s processor.

So if my perception of reality does resemble the icon metaphor on a computer then it must be a really good metaphor that represents the underlying truth quite well.

There are areas where we have good reason to believe our models are quite inaccurate, though. Quantum physics seems to provide an example of where incredibly precise results can be gained but the underlying theory requires apparently weird and unlikely rationalisations, like the many worlds hypothesis.

So, maybe there are situations where the icons are no longer sufficient and maybe we never will see the underlying code.

The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Cultural Superiority

March 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Is it OK to say that some cultures are better than others? Or are they all the same? Many people would say that we should treat all cultures the same and give them all equal respect, but I can’t agree. And even if I did, is that what we are doing?

If different cultures differ in their strengths and weaknesses then it should be OK to say that – at least from certain perspectives, if not overall – some are better than others. And if I think one culture is better then why shouldn’t I be a strong proponent for that culture as long as I do it in a reasonable way?

And if we have to treat all cultures as if they are equal (even though clearly they aren’t) how far should that extend? Should the culture of Nazi Germany (with apologies for invoking Godwin’s Law) be treated as an equal to those which were less violent and authoritarian at the time? Most people – even those who say that all cultures should be treated equally – would say no.

I’m now going to make a case for Western culture being the best. I should probably explain what I mean by this term, especially since it might not match the official definition. I see it as beginning with the ancient Greeks; then onto the Romans; being spread across the world by the British, Spanish, and other empires; and now being maintained primarily by the US. So the dominant culture in countries would be part of it today: USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Spain, etc.

Along with the political path I outlined above there is a clear religious path as well, which of course is Christianity. That religion is becoming less important today in the modern countries it helped to create, but there is no doubt it was an important component in the past.

I fully recognise the faults in Western culture. It is too controlled by corporate capitalism, it tends to use superior military and economic influence to further its own agenda while harming others, and a lot of western art (music, movies, etc) has become trivialised.

But Western culture has a lot going for it too. Most of the great scientific, political, and philosophical achievements came from it. And yes, I fully recognise that Chinese, Islamic, Indian, and other cultures have also made contributions (early astronomy, algebra, etc) but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Some people might also say that Western culture has lost its connection with the natural world, that it has lost its spirituality, that it seeks to dominate rather than live with nature. There is a certain amount of truth in these claims, but nowhere near as much as the people making them think, because the truth is that all cultures are guilty of this to varying extents, and it is just the success and technical abilities of Western society which has allowed it to go further.

There are undoubtedly aspects of other societies which are superior to those of Western culture, and which aspects are considered important is partly subjective. So if someone wants to present the idea that another culture is better then that is fine, let’s have a discussion about that. But don’t pretend that the subject should be forbidden as a subject of debate.

In fact it’s worse than that, because it is OK to make claims about “other” or “minority” or “indigenous” cultures being superior but the same can never be said about the dominant culture (which is usually Western). So the debate sort of happens but it’s like there’s only one team debating. The team supporting Western culture must remain silent except when it comes to agreeing with their opposition.

Maybe the whole idea of comparing cultures is a bad one. Because so much of the evaluation of value is subjective, maybe no meaningful conclusion can ever be reached. But I don’t think so.

Recently a new group was set up at a New Zealand university which was formed to celebrate European culture. It had to shut down before it really got started because of threats of violence against its members, claims of racism and white supremacism, and just general condemnation based on the most superficial evidence.

At the same university are many other groups celebrating Maori, Chinese, and Pacific culture, and these are not just OK, they are strongly encouraged. But a European group is somehow different.

If that group had formed and started encouraging racist behaviour against non-Europeans I would say then close it down, just like I would demand that any other group should be shut down if it did the same thing. But it was like the idea cannot even be allowed to exist. That the celebration of the most dominant, progressive, scientifically and technologically advanced culture the world has ever seen just cannot be allowed.

When members of “other” cultures are distanced from their history and principles it usually results in bad societal outcomes. The same happens when members of the dominant culture are similarly repressed.

Look around the world today and it becomes obvious very quickly that people are getting really sick of the politically correct nonsense they are subjected to. They are sick of having to celebrate someone else’s culture while having to be embarrassed about their own. They are sick of cultural debates based on what is considered politically appropriate rather than what is true. They are sick of being part of a culture which has delivered more good to the world than any other but not being able to celebrate that fact.

Like any group, they can only be pushed so far before they react.

The ironic thing is that the more the “PC brigade” try to push their agenda the more people will push back against it. They probably won’t be allowed to do that publicly but the resentment is still there and manifests itself in many ways, such as when voting.

And the end result of that is unlikely to be truly beneficial to anyone. So let’s just give everyone a fair deal to celebrate who they are, and forget about the meaningless labels like racist, Neonazi, and white supremacist. Because that’s not what we have now (except in a few minority cases) but if we continue down this path, that’s what we will get a lot more of.

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.

The Fermi Paradox Again

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

NASA recently announced the discovery of 7 Earth-like planets orbiting the relatively close star, Trappist-1, and that 3 are in the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too hot, not too cold). It is now expected (at least I have heard this although I don’t think it is officially stated anywhere) that almost all stars have planets and that a significant fraction of them might have conditions similar to Earth.

This is significant because for many years no one knew how many planets existed in the universe (although there were some discoveries going back to 1988 it was only Kepler, HARPS, and some other new advanced telescopes more recently that lead to significant numbers of discoveries). So it was generally assumed that planets were common but there was no way of knowing.

Another great mystery of the universe is how likely is life to arise and under what conditions. Here we are even worse off than with the planets because we are literally working with a sample size of 1. No other life has been discovered outside of the Earth, although there have been some interesting discoveries on Mars, none have lead to any proof of even primitive life.

It is generally assumed that life will have to be broadly similar to what we have here on Earth. I don’t mean similar in any superficial sense but in broad principles. So it will be based on carbon, because carbon is the only element in the universe which bonds to other atoms (and itself) with sufficient complexity to form molecules suitable to base life on. We also know that the elements we know about are the only ones which can exist in the universe.

The chemistry of life also requires a solvent, and water is the obvious choice. So these chemical requirements limit the temperature and other factors that life would need, which is why we are so interested in “Earth-like” planets which are big enough to have strong gravity, are the right temperature to allow liquid water, and have solid surfaces allowing water to pool and to provide the other elements that life might need.

Note that it is possible that life might be able to exist in a wider variety of conditions but I’ll stick to these, fairly conservative, assumptions.

Even when all the conditions are just right, or within certain limits, it’s hard to know how often life might arise. Experiments in the lab and some observations of molecules in space indicate it might be really likely, but the failure to find life on Mars seems to contradict this.

But even if there was only one chance in a billion of life arising if conditions were suitable, that still means these should be a lot of it in our galaxy alone, and a lot more in the universe as a whole.

There are about half a trillion stars in our galaxy (although this number has gone up and down a bit, the latest number I heard was at this high end) and each star seems to have multiple planets (let’s say 10 as an approximation) and it’s likely that at least one might be in the correct temperature zone (some stars might have none in this zone but other, like Trappist-1, have many). This seems to indicate that there are as many Earth-like planets as there are stars.

A recent Hubble survey indicated there might be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. So we have 2 trillion galaxies x 500 billion stars x 10 planets x 1/10 Earth-like, giving one trillion trillion places where life might evolve in the observable universe.

These numbers could be off by many orders of magnitude but who cares? Even if we are a billion times too optimistic that still means a thousand trillion places!

I have talked about the Fermi Paradox – the fact that according to best calculations there should be a lot of advanced life around, yet we never see it – in previous blog posts so I won’t go into that again here except to say we aren’t much further ahead in resolving it!

There is hope though. As telescope technology advances there will be techniques available which seemed impossible in the past. Detecting a planet orbiting another star is an incredible achievement in itself (the stars are really big and bright but at the distances of other stars the planets are very dim and small). But it should be possible to actually study their atmospheres in the future by analysing the light shining through the atmosphere from the star.

In that case it should be possible to learn a lot more about conditions on the planet (temperature, pressure, what elements are present, etc) and to even detect the chemical signatures of life.

And there are even serious proposals now to design small, robotic spacecraft which can be sent to close stars in a reasonable time (by reasonable here we mean decades rather than tens of thousands of years needed by current spacecraft). We know the closest star, a mere 4.2 light years (42 trillion kilometers) away, has a planet but it is unlikely to be suitable for life, but other relatively close stars could also be explored this way.

So how long will it be before we know that life exists on other planets? I predict hints of its existence within 10 years, strong evidence within 30, and proof within 50. And at that point, depending on the circumstances, it should be obvious just how likely life is. I predict we will start finding evidence for it everywhere.

But I still can’t get past the problem presented by the Fermi Paradox. If life arises frequently, why don’t we see signs of advanced, intelligent life? Maybe intelligence isn’t a good evolutionary trait. And, especially given the state of the world at the moment, that is a worrying thought.

Diversity

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

A common subject of debate recently has been the value of diversity. This has become popular due to the apparent rejection of it by the more radical conservative elements in various governments around the world, an increase in interest in furthering indigenous rights, and the apparent lack of progress for women in various parts of society.

I have chosen to criticise the efforts of various people on the left when they have pushed these ideals, not because I disagree with the underlying philosophy, but more because the arguments being made are often hopelessly flawed and/or based on opinions rather than facts.

So people on the left have reacted with significant hostility when I dared to question the points made by those who would normally be my allies. In fact, I have found it quite ironic that those who purport to be fighting against hate, ignorance, and single mindedness demonstrate so much of it themselves.

So enough of criticising others. What is my perspective on diversity? Well, first, I think the world would be a very boring place if everyone believed the same thing. Even people who are wrong at least provide an alternative view which at the very least encourages those who are right to sharpen their debating skills, and at best might even cause them to examine their beliefs and maybe improve on them.

So, while I think that religion is ridiculous and that religious fundamentalists, like creationists, are totally wrong, I still welcome the fact that they exist for various reasons…

First, they give me an opportunity to debate a subject which really needs no debate (because evolution is a fact) but which I enjoy the process of debating anyway. As one of my heroes, the late, great Christopher Hitchens said: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

Second, it means I understand evolution a lot better because I have had to defend it. Without that necessity, I might not have learned about the amazing work which has been done to show that it really is true.

And third, When I use the word “true” it cannot be taken as 100% precise because there is always room for doubt, so debating evolution provides a chance to search for any small chance that the “truth” isn’t true at all!

There are some extremely “diverse” ideas which the world might be better off without, though, and the problem is to figure out how extreme or harmful an idea has to be before I would say we would be better off without it.

So let’s have a look at a range of views with varying degrees of usefulness and different balances between their positive and negative aspects…

First is one which I think is almost entirely positive. I welcome a diversity of nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds. I work in a university which has people from almost every area of the world and I enjoy working with them all. This might seem contrary to some of the comments I have made in various previous posts but it isn’t. I have never indicated any negativity towards actual cultures, just to the politically motivated attempts to force some aspects of those cultures on to the rest of us.

So I enjoy working with Maori people but I haven’t got the time to learn the Maori language. I enjoy working with people from various religious backgrounds but I still think their beliefs are nonsense. And I enjoy working with Scottish people but that doesn’t mean I want to partake in their national drink… well, maybe in that case I would make an exception!

Next, one which could be either good or bad, with roughly equal likelihood. Neoliberalism is a political ideology which I believe has caused a lot of harm around the world. It has caused significant environmental destruction, lead to massive inequality, and has stifled true fundamental progress.

But I agree that a case could be made to suggest the exact opposite, and there is no real way to prove which of the two attitudes to it is true. So it’s good to have libertarians and other people who support neoliberalism debate with liberals and socialists who are against it. Probably neither are entirely right, so both worldviews are useful.

Then we have a view with little merit but minimal negativity. Creationists do some harm, because they stifle scientific progress and that leads to reduced development of useful technologies which could potentially have a lot of benefit to society, including preventing and curing diseases. But that is an obscure and relatively weak sequence of influences so I don’t resent the existence of creationism too much.

But then there are more harmful beliefs, which add variety to the world but also have severe negative effects. The most obvious one at this point of history is Islamic fundamentalism. The belief system adds an interesting new perspective on the world (although it is one which is essentially untrue according to any reasonable estimation) but it also has severe negative consequences: violence, conservatism, and inflexibility being the most obvious.

You could make a case to say that fundamentalist Islam is one source of diversity we could do without. But they, in turn, would probably say that western, rational, liberalism is a view they could do without, so we should be careful about outright condemnation of anything.

Maybe it gets back to how a group seeks to advance their worldview. If it gains support because it gives great benefits to society, like all those interesting, dedicated and intelligent people I work with at the university, that is good. If it seeks to advance through mostly rational and reasonable debate, like libertarianism, that is OK. If it uses crazy arguments and a few dirty tricks to progress, like creationism, we can at least tolerate that. But if it seeks to achieve dominance through violence and unthinking rejection of alternative ideas, like fundamentalist Islam, then that is a step too far.

Diversity is OK, it really is. I fully embrace it because without it who would I have to debate with? But there is a limit, and I think the majority of people know where that limit is. It should also be OK to criticise alternative views without being accused of being a racist, misogynist, or fascist… or having a fatwa declared against you.

I say, bring on the diversity, but also bring on rational and peaceful debate between those diverse views.

Let’s Talk About It

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

A common theme I have seen last week when New Zealand celebrated (and I should put that word in quotes because there seems to be more angst than celebration) its national day was that “we need to talk about it”. The “it” in that sentiment seemed to be something like race relations, our history in general, colonialism, and other subjects of that sort.

But I wonder how genuine this wish for “talking about it” really is, because it seems that people are only allowed to talk about it if they take the side of political correctness and don’t offer any alternative ideas or even mention any opinions which don’t fit in with what the “political correctness police” want to hear.

A classic example of this happened recently when a member of a local council mentioned on social media that he didn’t think the Maori language was worth saving, and that effectively it was on life support.

If we are going to have a discussion about indigenous rights in general, and the preservation of the Maori language in particular, then surely that is an opinion which is worth presenting. It might be right and it might be wrong, but at least let’s accept it as a genuine possibility and discuss it.

But that’s not what happened, of course. Because in these politically correct times a “discussion” involves only hearing one side of the story and not even mentioning anything which might seem to go against that view. So this person was subject to general scorn and derision, will probably be forced to apologise, and might face other disciplinary actions from the council he works for.

This is not a discussion. When a discussion involves only saying things which are approved by a controlling group it is called propaganda, and that’s what all of the “acceptable” pro-Maori views I have seen recently really are.

The fact is that you could make a very good case to say that the Maori language is, in fact, on life support, and that the money being spent on it might be better used somewhere else. That would be my view, and I know I would be attacked for it if I presented it in a forum where the left wing nutters I have been unfortunate enough to have to associate with recently reside.

And remember that I’m not saying this as a far-right red-neck conservative. I am politically quite far to the left and am definitely liberal by any reasonable measure. But there’s just one aspect of left-wing politics which I reject: political correctness and the mindless posturing the left are often involved in.

In fact I would be far more amenable to arguments supporting the Maori language if it wasn’t so much considered a topic which is protected in the way I described above. It is the bungling and bureaucratic attempts at making it more acceptable which have had the complete opposite effect and made it less so.

This isn’t a unique view either. I think the silent majority secretly hold it and, if it was acceptable to have a real discussion on the subject, its popularity would become quickly apparent.

But repressing alternative views doesn’t make them go away. I would have thought that after the debacle in the US presidential election recently that the left would have realised that people don’t like being told what to think. I’m convinced that political correctness and the repression of alternative opinions are major reasons why the left was rejected there (and yes, I know that Clinton won the majority vote, etc).

So if we are going to talk about this let’s actually talk about it, instead of having a one sided monologue of politically correct propaganda which is occasionally interrupted by alternative views which are quickly repressed by the thought police.

Forget about compulsory Maori language teaching and forcing one group’s customs onto another. People don’t like being told what to do. They like even less being told what to say. And all the political correctness in the world won’t stop them from thinking what they want to think.