Archive for September, 2009

Brilliant Stupidity

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

The title of this blog entry, “brilliant stupidity” sounds like an oxymoron. How can someone be both brilliant and stupid at the same time? Well they can’t really but they can switch from one mode of thought to another and demonstrate brilliance in one area and stupidity in another. Generally the stupidity results from an acceptance of a particular view and ignoring evidence against that view, even though the same person would never use such faulty logic in other aspects of their life.

I’m sure by now you realise that this is leading to a specific example of this phenomenon. In this case it is Francis Collins, a brilliant physician and geneticist who has recently been appointed as director of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in the US.

Collins is most well known for his landmark discoveries in the genetics of disease and his leadership of the Human Genome Project and has been called “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Sounds really impressive, doesn’t it? So when we hear this person is also an evangelical Christian that should be taken seriously, you would think.

Well I did take it seriously but, as always happens in these situations, I was very disappointed. In fact, I have heard the religious views of many other good scientists and am always disappointed. In every case the skill and intelligence they exhibit in their scientific work is entirely abandoned and they revert back to the same old tired arguments which have been thrown out many years ago.

Why do these people embrace science and accept that the scientific process is the best way to establish the truth in that context yet revert back to obviously flawed arguments less skilled people also use when religion is the subject? Well its simple really: you can’t make a logical argument to support religion so, if you decide you want to be religious, that only leaves weak, illogical arguments.

If these religious scientists are so convinced that a god’s existence is supported by what they see in the scientific findings and are also convinced that science is an excellent way of establishing facts then why don’t they take the logical step and use the scientific process, including publishing in peer reviewed journals, to demonstrate god’s existence? They don’t do this because they know they can’t, and they can’t because god obviously doesn’t actually exist.

When Collins was interviewed recently he was asked a difficult question by someone who called the program. The question was something like this: “how can you have a scientific approach to finding diseases and still reconcile that with the idea that god created those diseases?” Note that the following quotes are my interpretation of what Collins said. I think they are accurate but not exact.

His first comment was that “it is difficult to answer a question like that with a sound bite”. Well that’s partly true but also a bit of a cop out because even the most complex ideas can be summarised in a few minutes without that explanation becoming a meaningless sound bite. But that aside he continued with these doubtful conclusions…

First he claimed “Both believers and non-believers have struggled with that question: what is the cause of evil and human suffering.” Oh really? If you believe in a good god then you really should be struggling with that question but if you believe in either an uncaring god or no god at all then it really isn’t a problem. Disease is the natural consequence of natural evolution but its a lot harder to explain as the result of a loving god (which most Christians believe in).

So that wasn’t very convincing but he went on: “One argument put forward is the way in which earth came into being and the way humans came into being creates the possibility
of things going wrong. If we want life we need life change and a lot of that change will be negative”. This is so full of holes that it sounds more like the clumsy argument an ignorant fundy would espouse rather than that of a brilliant scientist. Again, if a good god existed surely the change would be oriented towards good but because change happens both ways natural processes are a far better explanation.

Maybe realising that his arguments sounded pretty weak he embarked on this: “a lot of illness is caused by things people do to themself”. Well sure, people could do more to look after themselves but many diseases happen to people who do make a real effort to stay healthy or to young children who haven’t had the chance to make a decision, so how does that fit in with the Christian God? The answer is it doesn’t, of course.

Again, perhaps realising that what he said didn’t make sense, he made the observation that “when you see a child with cancer you have to wonder”. You certainly do, but apparently he doesn’t wonder too much because that’s about as far as his explanation (or lack of explanation) of the disturbing phenomenon of child cancer goes.

So just to complete the commentary with the ultimate inanity he said: “I think there are answers, but they aren’t easy answers. No one should feel complacent about the answer they have. I you explore scientific discoveries from a spiritual perspective that increases the possibility of god.” Well if you explore anything from a spiritual perspective you are starting with the idea that a spiritual world exists so you are really engaging in a bit of circular logic there.

In case I’m accused of only criticising his ideas based on a single question in an interview, here’s the reasoning he uses in his book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” which I believe is equally invalid (perhaps even more so)…

1. The universe was created by God, approximately 14 billion years ago. [Fair enough, he accepts the age of the universe but puts a god into the equation for reasons which he mentions later.]

2. The properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life. [Or life has been precisely tuned to fit in with this universe (by evolution). Also, if the universe is precisely tuned why have so many species been eliminated through natural events like asteroid collisions? And why is there not life everywhere? I do concede that this is an interesting question, however.]

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on Earth remains unknown, it is possible that the development of living organisms was part of God’s original creation plan. [Yes, and its possible life arose from many other mechanisms too. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously.]

4. Once life began, no special further interventions by God were required. [Well that’s very convenient – a little bit too convenient really. What’s God doing now then? Just sitting around watching?]

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes. [At least he’s sensible enough to admit that humans are fundamentally no different from other animals and are the product of evolution.]

6. Humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanations and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the knowledge of right and wrong and the search for God. [Maybe if he was a behavioural psychologist, zoologist, or evolutionist he would know that this isn’t true. There is no reason I know of to suspect humans are really different from other animals. Maybe he thinks if he just keeps saying these things it will make them true]

He has also stated that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain, such as the values of the physical constants favouring life, and that God does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. I’m sure Collins has heard of special pleading before, and the argument from ignorance. These are such blatant examples of faulty logic that he should be ashamed.

So yes, he is undeniably brilliant, but when it comes to religion also undeniably stupid!

Jerk, Jerk, Jerk

September 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I just can’t ignore it any more. Its silly and trivial and unworthy of any real concern, yet on the other hand its deeply symbolic of the problems we face here in New Zealand, and the problems many other countries face around the world. I’m talking about the great Wanganui/Whanganui debate, of course.

If you aren’t a New Zealander Iet me explain: we have a city here called “Wanganui” which is a name from the language of the original inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori. The problem is the spelling was probably originally “Whanganui” and now some groups (especially some Maori groups) want the spelling “corrected”.

Seems simple enough, right? There are a few problems though. First, a poll shows the people who live there don’t want the name changed (and over 70% of New Zealanders who responded to a Herald poll didn’t either). Second, the Maori had no written language and no alphabet and pronunciation varied from one area to another so the spelling is somewhat arbitrary. Third, there is significant expense involved in changing signs and other places where the name is used. And last, many names have changed over they years so why is it only Maori names which must be corrected?

There is already a feeling amongst some members of our society that Maori get special privileges and the fact is they do. Whether those special privileges are fair or deserved is another matter which I won’t comment in here. So this is just seen as another time that certain Maori groups try to use their power and have politically correct authorities jump to attention.

Just to make things worse the mayor of Wanganui is a rather outspoken and controversial individual who isn’t scared to make his opinions known, even when those opinons might be better kept to himself. He really lost it a bit recently when debating the subject and reverted to rather childish insults such as in response to someone saying his “credibility going down, down, down,” where he replied, “Jerk, jerk, jerk.”

I’m not against using Maori names. I refer to Mount Taranaki as that because I have no idea who Egmont was [according to Wikipedia the mountain was named after John Perceval, the 2nd Earl of Egmont, the First Lord of the Admiralty who promoted Cook’s first voyage], but I refer to Mount Cook as that because Captain Cook, who it was named after, was genuinely important to this country and I prefer that name to the Maori name, Aoraki.

While I can see that there is merit on both sides I think its time we backed away from the excessive political correctness we (and most other countries) have suffered from recently, so I would like to see the existing name of Wanganui retained. There are plenty of other names which are mis-spelled or technically incorrect in other ways but we should accept those as just part of the charm of naming things and move on. And above all we should forget about this trivia and start worrying about more important things instead.

Economics is Useless

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Before I start here I should say that I really don’t know an awful lot about economics but I’m going to criticise it anyway. I’m quite prepared to be corrected on any points I make here but I think I do have reasonable cause to think a lot of what I’m saying is true.

The aspect of economics I’m most suspicious of is the market, specifically the idea that the market should be left alone to achieve the best outcome for society in general and that the market makes the best decisions based on its inherent processes.

A couple of recent news articles have lead me to doubt this idea. Actually, to be more honest, I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the concept of free markets being the best model for economic welfare. Anyway, the two articles were these: first, a survey in the US showing people didn’t want free market models to control greenhouse gas emissions and preferred government regulation; and second, a reminder of how the 2002 Nobel prize for economics was awarded to a psychologist for a theory (Prospect Theory) which effectively showed the standard economic free market model doesn’t work.

If the people of the US, which is usually thought of as the home of the free market, don’t trust it then who does? It seems that in the US big business has hijacked the “democratic” policy and it is now far from being “the land of the free”. In fact its more like the “land of the slaves of big corporations”. I know I’m reading a lot into a survey on a single issue which Americans don’t even think of as being the most important current problem although they do accept it as being real, but I think there’s ample evidence from other areas that this is happening.

And how many subjects hand out Nobel prizes to researchers from other subjects which cast a lot of doubt on the central tenets of that area? For example, has there ever been a biologist given a Nobel prize for showing a major physics theory is probably wrong? There’s none that I can think of. To me this shows that economics isn’t really a strong science (maybe not a science at all) and our whole understanding of the area should be re-examined. I do realise that some economists do doubt the standard free market model but the majority seem to support it, seemingly without any real evidence to show that it works.

I have done some brief research on the theory the Nobel prize was awarded for and it seems to basically show that people do not make sensible choices in a free market situation. The collapse of the global financial system seems to be in agreement with this idea. Its only through constant intervention (effectively corporate welfare handouts) that the whole system is propped up – until the next time it fails.

But even if the model worked without periodic collapses it still wouldn’t really be a suitable model for our whole society. Despite what many people will say it is based on short-term, self-centered greed. Its really quite a tribute to the propagandists who support the system that so many people support this as being OK and even admire the people who effectively parasitise off the rest of us.

So we really need to throw out the whole competitive, private enterprise model and look for something better. The first step would be to make the ridiculous system of trading currencies and imaginary financial packages illegal. We then need to find a model for financing things that really matter, such as long term scientific research into areas with no immediate pay-off – perhaps with no financial payback at all.

Here’s some example projects I would throw whatever money is necessary into: fusion energy, colonising other planets, stopping global warming. It doesn’t matter what these cost really, just find the money. If hydrogen fusion cost a trillion dollars that would be nothing compared with the advantages. Why has the US spent that much on saving some useless financial institutions instead? Simply because our whole economic system is wrong. Let’s start ignoring the economists and business leaders and let’s make some real progress instead. Following the current path will only lead to disaster.

Boring Morality

September 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Today I downloaded a report from a New Zealand research company which summarised a survey of New Zealanders’ opinions on morality. Naturally I thought there would be some weird and wonderful, inconsistent, and outrageous opinions there that I could rant about in this blog but really, things were fairly much what I would have expected and there were no real surprises at all. In fact the whole thing was a bit boring.

The final graph in the report summarised the findings quite well by creating a “net strength of opinion index” calculated by subtracting negative opinions from positive (so that if everyone thought an issue was moral the score would be 100, if half thought it was moral and half immoral the score would be 0 and if everyone thought it was immoral the score would be -100).

So, of the questions that were asked, the highest morality rating was for divorce at 68%, followed by sex between an unmarried man and unmarried woman at 59%. Married men and women having an affair was considered highly immoral at -70% and polygamy even worse at -74%. So it seems that marriage is highly valued because infidelity is seen as very immoral (but sex outside of marriage isn’t) although in some ways marriage is not valued because divorce is considered very moral as well. That seems slightly contradictory.

On other issues, the most immoral was seen as cloning humans. The score for this was -81% and only 7% of people (just 4% of women) thought it was morally acceptable. I’m not really sure why this should be because it doesn’t really seem to be doing any harm to anyone but clearly its a big issue with many people because other prominent figures, such as the US president, have also indicated their total rejection of it. I suspect this is probably more due to ignorance and imaginary science fiction scenarios rather than real facts.

Maybe the more interesting issues were the ones which were more evenly divided. These included medical testing on animals at 12%, gambling at 10%, using clothing made of animal fur at 4% and the death penalty at -7%. Why wearing fur should be a problem in a population where the vast majority eat meat I cannot imagine, and maybe TV campaigns on problem gambling have given it a bad reputation even though almost everyone I know does gamble in various ways.

I was surprised that the death penalty got so much support, although it was still viewed overall negatively. I thought New Zealand was a more liberal society which would reject that sort of extreme state power. Maybe recent high profile crimes might have increased support for the idea but one recent case, where a person previously convicted of murder had the conviction reversed, should have served as a warning about the consequences of capital punishment.

So what about the classic moral issues? Homosexual relations scored 29% but was much more acceptable to younger people so opinions seem to be changing there. Abortion got a 21% rating showing that its still a problem to many people. And suicide scored -48% although, if it was doctor assisted it scored 18%. That’s a big difference but it does make sense because doctor assisted suicide would only apply to terminally ill patients instead of someone who was possibly just feeling depressed. Still, its hard to see why an action which only really affects the person involved should be seen so negatively.

So, as I said above, there’s really nothing too surprising here. Its really just the usual mix of conservative and liberal, reasonable and contradictory, well informed and ignorant, opinions we would expect from most people.

Mystery Solved

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

I have been interested in skepticism for many years now. By skepticism I don’t mean being cynical and negative and not believing anything (which is more like nihilism). What I mean is maintaining a healthy initial disrespect for all claims and especially those which seem to contradict knowledge with good objective support. Of course, balance is needed because new evidence does sometimes lead to long standing theories changing. But no one said being a well-balanced skeptic was easy!

So what is this leading to? Actually to an article at the BBC web site which seems to be inspired by a new series they are running examining paranormal phenomena. It doesn’t say much about the series but it seems that it might be quite skeptical. Many TV series take the easy path and either emphasise the sensational but inaccurate explanations of various phenomena or, at the very least, leave the question open to some paranormal explanation.

The mystery mentioned in the article concerned the disappearance of two aircraft in the Bermuda Triangle. This area is well known as a part of the world where a mysteriously high number of aircraft and ships disappear without explanation. Unfortunately that isn’t entirely accurate. When the accident rate is analysed it is about the same as any other part of the world when the number of ships and planes in the area is considered. And the mysteries usually turn out to have fairly mundane explanations or at least quite reasonable potential explanations even when the evidence is lacking.

One of the mysteries involved a BSAA Avro Tudor IV plane which disappeared on 30 January 1948. No bodies or wreckage were found. Unfortunately the official investigation concluded with the poorly considered phrase: “It may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented.” Why do investigators write stuff like that? Its just an open invitation for the crazies to take it and read a lot more into the event than is really there.

Have a look at some of these facts…

The aircraft’s heater was known to be unreliable and had already failed during that flight. Because of this the pilot decided to fly much lower than usual (about 2000 feet) making accidents much more likely.

When it approached Bermuda, Star Tiger was off course and had been flying for an hour longer than planned. It also had encountered head winds and flying at the lower altitude used more fuel. At the time even commercial flights carried very little extra fuel.

Flying at 2,000 feet would leave very little altitude for any emergency manoeuvres. In any serious in-flight emergency they could have lost their height in seconds and gone into the sea. Whatever happened to the plane, it was sudden and catastrophic – there was no time to send an emergency signal.

The Avro Tudor IV was a converted warplane that was taken out of passenger service because of its poor safety record. Only the airline involved (BSAA) which itself had a poor safety record continued to fly the aircraft. The chief pilot even said he had no confidence in the Tudor’s engines, saying “Its systems were hopeless… all the hydraulics, the air conditioning equipment and the recycling fans were crammed together underneath the floor without any thought. There were fuel burning heaters that would never work.”

So at 2,000 feet a failure would result in a rapid crash into the sea without the chance to radio for help. Given this there seems to be little justification in saying it was a baffling problem. With all that against it you could say it would have been more baffling if the flight had actually got to its final destination!

I would like to say that the last comment I made wasn’t entirely serious because, taken at face value, it might imply I would consider it a mystery if any similar flight did end successfully. That’s the problem with using rhetoric and hyperbole in these situations: some people will take that sort of comment and warp it beyond all recognition. That’s what usually happens with the Bermuda Triangle and other mysteries – but in reality they aren’t real mysteries at all.

Thinking Critically

September 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Recently while searching for information to confirm or refute an unlikely story a friend sent to me I came across a web site which, as well as disproving the story, gave a brief explanation on how to think critically. This started me thinking that I should write a blog entry about critical thinking but I didn’t really have time to do that properly so I came up with this poorly considered rant instead!

Many people seem to have a very poor idea of how to evaluate how accurate or factual a claim might be and some people (including the friend mentioned above) just continually churn out fake stories. Sometimes they even re-issue a story that has already been shown to be false and there’s really no excuse for that.

In many cases it doesn’t matter. If the story is just one of those inane little feel good stories which periodically infest the internet then that’s fine, but many are politically motivated and belief in those can be a problem. At the top of the list are stories about controversial subjects like global warming. People who distribute fake stories about global warming are really doing a great disservice to everyone because its an issue which affects everyone and everyone should know about.

I’m sorry to have to mention this but I find that right-wingers are the worst perpetrators of these falsehoods. They tend to be serious global warming deniers, for example, and often indulge in other conspiracy theories which suit their political whims, especially stories against their opponents like suggesting Barack Obama isn’t a US citizen and other nonsense.

Its strange really because the same people are often very distrustful and cynical about most other things. They automatically reject what most politicians, scientists and academics say, for example – unless it fits their political biases of course then the same person instantly becomes someone worthy of admiration!

I have no statistics proving this point and I’m sure there are many examples of more left oriented people suffering from similar delusions but I’m just saying that I think I have detected a trend of some sort there.

So that’s why I think critical thinking is important. In the future I should try to get back to the original idea and discuss how to think critically.

Know Your Place

September 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I think I have identified why our culture is so inefficient and out of touch with reality. Actually, I have presented this theory in the past but a recent event here illustrates the problem extremely well so I thought it was worth mentioning it again. The big problem with most (especially larger) organisations is modern management structures, specifically that the people at the top levels who make most of the decisions have no idea what’s going on in the “real world” where most of their staff operate because they are “protected” by too many levels of managers.

The latest incident involved a manager at a government department called “Child Youth and Family” or CYF. This manager told the staff that they shouldn’t bother the minister in charge with their problems and should remember their subservient role. Specifically the message said: “It is not appropriate for staff to pour their hearts and souls out to the minister. This is a formal visit and she is not your ‘friend’. It’s a bit like the relationship between a servant and a master, ie the servant knows their place. She should not be presented with the woes of the office, or lack of resources, or anything like that.”

The most likely explanation seems that the manager was trying to protect him/herself. That manager obviously wanted to control what more senior staff were told about the operation of the institution. Why? Presumably because it wasn’t running that well and that would reflect badly on the middle management.

I’ve found this fairly universally with my dealings with managers. They are really only interested in maintaining their own position and rarely want to really improve the organisation they are involved with. In other words, they tend to be the greatest barrier standing in the way of the organisation being run better.

But this case is really beyond what we usually see. This has actually become offensively elitist as well. I mean stuff like “It’s a bit like the relationship between a servant and a master, ie the servant knows their place.” That’s really disgusting. There’s absolutely no call for that sort of attitude in a modern society. The manager should be instantly fired and not allowed to work in a government department again.

Calling it workplace bullying or corruption (as some have suggested) is a bit more doubtful. I would say its pure stupidity and incompetence as well as the manager having a rather inflated view of his/her own value.

So middle management are intentionally blocking the information flow to senior decision makers. Of course its a whole new question whether the senior decision makers are competent but I’ll leave that for another blog entry. If they don’t get reliable information from the people doing the real work they can’t make good decisions even if they are competent. And information filtered through someone with attitudes that sound like they come from the Victorian era is likely to be worse than nothing.

As I have said in the past, most managers would be better if they just locked themselves in an office somewhere and just did nothing instead of just making a nuisance of themselves like they tend to do. So eliminating managers would be the first step on my road to Utopia. I can’t think of any other group that does more harm to progress than them. They are the ones who really need to know their place!