Archive for February, 2010

Daniel Dennett

February 27, 2010 2 comments

I always enjoy listening to Daniel Dennett speaking. In case you don’t know, he’s an American philosopher and a well known member of the new atheist movement. While he doesn’t hesitate to be critical of religion he isn’t quite as confrontational as other people with similar beliefs (for example Christopher Hitchens who I also enjoy listening to but who does take a more extreme stance).

A recent speech by Dennett agreed with what I have been saying for several years now – so he must be right! What he said is that faith is something to be treated with distrust and even contempt rather than with admiration.

It (metaphorically) makes me feel sick when I hear religious people making admiring comments about one of their friends like “he’s got great faith”. They’re saying he’s a great person who is so strong that he maintains great confidence in his chosen beliefs. If I heard the same statement I would be thinking: he’s a fool who has been taken in by superstition and mythology and doesn’t have the strength, intelligence, or courage to break away from a false belief which has been created through propaganda and lies.

There’s quite a lot of difference between those two interpretations, isn’t there?

So what’s so bad about faith? Dennett put it well when he said it closes down the discussion. If someone has faith that something is true then there’s not a lot that can be done to point out any errors in their belief system. That may sound fine if the person is a member of a well intentioned religion but its not so good if the person is a member of an extreme paramilitary group, for example, but every belief has good and bad aspects so its not necessarily fair to apply different standards to them.

If you rely on faith to support your beliefs then you can believe anything. Faith can be used to substantiate belief in the Christian God, or in Thor, or in the Invisible Pink Unicorn or in the belief that its OK to kill infidels. If we say faith is OK then we can’t really be critical of people who believe stupid and/or evil things because of it.

Of course Christians will say faith is OK but only if you use it to believe the same things that they do. But if faith is really all they have to support their beliefs how does that make them different from anyone else who uses it that way? It would be just as easy for an extremist Muslim to say that faith is only OK if its used to justify suicide bombing attacks.

Another phrase which Dennett uses which I really identify with is that faith provides a gold-plated excuse to stop thinking. That is close to being true. I know believers who do keep thinking but only in a very limited way. For example they will only consider new possibilities if the outcome supports their existing belief system.

Its easy to accuse atheists of the same thing but its not really true. Atheists have no belief system except the idea that they should follow the objective evidence, and I don’t really think that’s a faith in any reasonable sense of the word. Its also ironic that believers congratulate each other on their faith then use it as a way to disparage atheists. They can’t really have it both ways!

There’s one other phrase I have to mention, its that many believers are “morally incapacitated”. Because they follow the rules written in their holy books instead of really thinking through the issues and deciding what is genuinely the most moral action, religious people are actually less moral than atheists in most cases. This is particularly ironic when you consider that they often use their god as a source of morality.

Dennett says debating believers is like a game of cards, but they want to set the rules themselves and one of the rules is they have a card which beats everything else, its like the joker and they can play it any time they like. That card is faith: you cannot beat it because it makes no sense. That’s probably why so many religions emphasise its importance!

Climate Change Reality

February 24, 2010 2 comments

There are a lot of extremely ignorant and biased people criticising climate change science at the moment. They have been very effective recently because their cause has been helped by some stupid mistakes made by climate scientists and bureaucrats.

But if you look at any subject critically enough and inflate the negative evidence and small anomalies while ignoring the vast amount of real data you can make the case for anything look good. Creationists do this very effectively. Go to a creationist web site and I’m sure a person who is ignorant of the real science will find it very convincing. In fact over half of the people in the US believe creationism in preference to evolution even though there is absolutely no reasonable doubt at all that evolution is true.

The same applies to climate science. I do agree that the case for anthropogenic climate change is nowhere near as strong as the case for evolution but its still strong enough that the only reasonable conclusion is that climate change is happening and that human influences are the most important factor. If I had to put a number on it I would say evolution is over 99% certain and climate change is about 80%

Is 80% certainty enough to act on? If I told you that you were 80% likely to be killed in a traffic accident today would you stay off the road? I know I would. I wouldn’t insist that I needed 100% or even 99% accuracy. I would act, even if staying at home meant a significant personal disadvantage to me.

Maybe its because the really serious effects won’t be obvious for so long that people don’t want to act. If the sea level was going to rise by a meter in a year instead of a century I think there would be more of a call for action.

So people are really just being greedy, self centered, and short sighted by refusing to act (add that to the ignorant and biased I have already mentioned and the deniers aren’t looking too good). Unfortunately long term planning is not a strength of modern, capitalist societies. Most businesses only plan a year ahead (for their next profit report or shareholder meeting) and most governments are only looking at the next election (in roughly 3 years). So why would a government or business want to plan up to 50 to 100 years in the future for something that is only 80% certain anyway?

In past blog posts I have indicated a bit of despair regarding the future of climate change issues (Battle Lost? on 2010-01-26) and even the experts agree the public opinion battle has gone against them. That doesn’t mean their case is any weaker. Quite the contrary is true: just about every day more evidence is uncovered supporting the consensus. The contrary information (it isn’t evidence) is generally political, an opinion, or a simple lie.

I look at a constant stream of news on the issue (on both sides) and here’s what I’ve seen for about the last week…

An article titled “Climate scientists withdraw journal claims of rising sea levels”. Sounds serious but this is just one study. Errors are found in individual studies all the time. Sea levels are rising and I haven’t seen if the original papers conclusions were too low or too high. Maybe they were correct but for the wrong reasons. Either way this makes no real difference to the consensus.

An article, “Implications of recent climate science controversies” discussed how misleading propaganda against climate change was affecting political decisions. At no time was the overall data questioned.

In the Guardian an article “Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain” talked about how the so-called “skeptics” were aggressive but ignorant as well as being dangerous.

In the Telegraph “Penguins in Antarctica to be replaced by jellyfish due to global warming” discussed real changes which are caused by climate change.

A politically oriented article “Legal Challenges Pile Up Against EPA Climate Regulation” mentioned how the EPA is being challenged. But not on factual or scientific grounds – this is a legal and business challenge and in no way contradicts the facts.

The USA Today article “Global warming likely cause of Australia’s drought” described another real event based on evidence from Antarctic ice core data. Note the honesty shown by the use of the word “likely”.

An article called “Global warming skeptics increase ranks in wake of IPCC reports” discussed how public opinion was winning against climate change. But this wasn’t because of new facts or evidence. It was because of political pressure from deniers.

In “NASA Finds Warmer Ocean Speeding Greenland Glacier Melt” there was evidence from another, well respected, organisation (NASA) based on another information source. Again more independent data confirms the consensus.

An opinion piece “No, IPCC Climatologists Did NOT Make Sloppy Errors” defended the errors in judgement of the IPCC because they were made by administrators and other people on the periphery of the real science. Again, the data itself is conclusive.

An opinion criticising climate change “They’re finally admitting the science isn’t settled” was full of straw men and misinformation. Science is never settled. Complex phenomena like climate always involve a degree of uncertainty. Again, its only the presentation and not the real science which suggests otherwise. This is a typical denialist anomaly hunting piece.

The Washington Post had the headline “Washington’s snowstorms, brought to you by global warming”. Increased snow has been predicted by global warming theory for years. Now when it happens the skeptics claim it disproves warming. A brief explanation: there is 4% more water vapour in the atmosphere now than 30 years ago because of climate change. More snow in some areas is the inevitable result.

The Guardian had “Global warming: Sceptics are putting words in my mouth” where Sir John Houghton denied he had said what the deniers claimed he had (“Unless we announce disasters no one will listen”). That is another lie that is in the public domain now and being used by deniers.

So really the evidence for climate change consists of science from organisations like NASA and the evidence against consists of opinions, lies, and carefully cherry picked factoids from various politically oriented individuals and organisations. Anyone who believes the deniers is just being deliberately ignorant… and biased and greedy and self centered and short sighted!

Categories: science Tags: , , , ,

It Could Never Last

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Until recently I have been fairly generous to New Zealand’s National-lead government. Maybe that was because they didn’t really try to do anything. Maybe having no government is the best form of government, but that really leads to libertarianism (or anarchy) which creates a whole new set of problems, so I won’t follow that logic here.

You can always tell when the right-wing agenda is being unleashed on the country: the government starts doing things which are contrary to expert advice, ministers become an enemy to the people they are supposed to represent, the bean counters start cutting funding and changing the structure of services which work extremely well already, and the politicians start talking in meaningless sound bites.

I have already addressed some of these issues in previous posts (such as “Bullies and Thieves” on 2010-02-11) but I did want to mention the latest controversy which has recently appeared. It involves proposed cuts (or lack of funding increases to cover inflation, etc) to our public radio service, Radio New Zealand.

The whole system (multiple stations, news, reporting, the web site, shortwave service, podcasts, etc) is run on government funding of $34 million per year. That’s about $8 per New Zealander per year. That’s 2 coffees, or a week of cheap broadband or cell coverage. Its basically nothing. And what do we get for that: a pretty good service which has reasonably unbiased reporting and a general level of intelligence well above the garbage we get on the commercial stations.

Sure, I know that National Radio isn’t everybody’s favourite station but it is an important information source for the more intelligent demographic in New Zealand.

The RNZ board have been resisting the minister’s demands and he has responded by threatening to fire them if they don’t cooperate (of course he didn’t use those exact words but that’s what he meant). Should RNZ do what they are told by an elected minister who is in charge of that public service? Well you can look at it two ways: first, the minster was elected by the people of New Zealand to organise broadcasting services and RNZ should do what they’re told; and second, the RNZ management is there to provide the best radio broadcasting they can and if they think the minister has got it wrong they should say so.

I think its fair to point out the deficiencies in the government’s plans but at a certain point the only option is cooperation, otherwise total chaos will ensue. Where that point is I don’t know.

I have to say that the chairperson of RNZ has been fairly courageous in how she has fought back against these cuts. She has suggested that the government wastes too much on funding programs for commercial TV and the clear suggestion is that what is spent there might be better invested in our national radio system. She’s right, of course, but I don’t think many people in her position would have been brave enough to point that out!

In the end the government controls the money and they will do what they want. They’re so arrogant that its unlikely they would ever reconsider any policy just because its shown to be unfair or contrary to the best interests of the country as a whole. They seem to be determined to give tax cuts to the rich and that has to be funded some way, after all.

So its standard right wing ideology in action apparently: the private sector siphons most of our funds off overseas while providing terrible services (Telecom, banks, etc), the organisations which do provide good service get underfunded, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Well at least now we know where we are, because I was quite confused with the first year when this government actually acted sensibly. It could never last!

Propaganda 101

February 21, 2010 Leave a comment

What is it about our political and business leaders which has allowed them to get to the “top”? Are they intelligent or knowledgeable or innovative? Well that might be a factor for some of them but it seems to me that a more significant factor is their ability to spout bullshit! Yes, the ability to lie, to exaggerate, to spin, or to lead a debate in the direction they want.

This is probably no surprise to anyone I guess, especially in regard to politicians, but I notice exactly the same thing with leaders in almost every area. For example, I listened to an interview with Telecom CEO, Paul Reynolds, and it was obvious at all times that he wasn’t being very honest and was really just repeating a series of almost meaningless sound bites about how Telecom was doing such a great job. Then he would cherry pick some numbers intending to make the company look a lot more innovative and dedicated to good service than it actually is. Sure, he’s a whole order of magnitude better than his evil predecessor, Theresa Gattung, but Joseph Stalin would have been an improvement after her!

Its hard to remember any occasion recently where a leader has been both honest and accurate on any issue. The government are naturally enthusiastically into using misleading propaganda and meaningless phrases. I have noticed this a lot recently in relation to the current conflict regarding national standards. To be fair I would have to say that the government’s opponents haven’t exactly been 100% forthcoming with information which doesn’t support their cause either!

You would think that people would understand that this process is widespread and wouldn’t get too upset when they see it happening but apparently some groups are held to a higher standard of behaviour than others. I’m talking about the errors of judgement and fact recently uncovered in relation to climate science. If problems of this sort had been demonstrated by any other group people would have barely commented, but because they originated from a science group its like the world has ended – or the world isn’t going to end if you believe the deniers!

I think its fair that science is held to a higher standard than other areas and that just shows how much esteem science is (or was) held in. The fact that the problems which were uncovered had practically nothing to do with the pure science and had more to do with the crossover between science and politics has been ignored by many.

For example, the IPCC has several smaller groups within it and many of their members aren’t climate scientists. So if a report from the IPCC said that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 that wasn’t really an error in the science, it was an administrative error on the fringe of the science.

Unfortunately real scientists do increasingly rely on people from other professions, such as journalists, managers, and social scientists to distribute their findings and that distribution process is rarely accurate. That’s fair enough because the raw scientific papers are too technical for most people but when errors are found no one should suggest that affects the underlying science.

Scientists are trained to avoid the bullshit that is the most important skill of politicians and managers. Anyone who has a reasonable understanding of science will appreciate that but it amounts to poor communications skills when it comes to distributing information to the public. Maybe some new papers should be added to the science curriculum: propaganda 101, disinformation 102, and most important of all bullshit 103!

Who Are Your Friends?

February 18, 2010 2 comments

How do people decide who their friends are? I don’t just mean the friends they interact with in their social lives, I mean the groups of people from all countries and cultures who affect their lives less directly.

Here’s an example I heard in a recent podcast. Many people will prefer to believe an unqualified, biased person trying to sell them some sort of alternative medical therapy (such as homeopathy) when they would ignore their doctor or the medical establishment as a whole.

Here’s another one. Many people believe right-wing bloggers who are clearly biased and completely unqualified to comment on the subject they are discussing instead of the vast majority of experts on climate science.

Or maybe they will believe their local priest, minister, pastor, imam, rabbi, etc instead of the evidence presented by scientists who are supported by a vast array of data carefully collected over centuries.

Before I continue I would like to say that I don’t think every alternative medicine is ineffective, although I do think the vast majority of them are (some are even dangerous). I also think there is a reasonable cause for debate on some aspects of climate change, but that’s not really connected with what the deniers say. And I think that many religious leaders are nice people and have great wisdom in certain areas, but that doesn’t include the origin of the universe or the diversity of life on Earth.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, what am I actually trying to say? What I’m really saying is that most people are close minded, lazy, and apathetic. They only look at sources which are likely to say what they want to hear, they can’t be bothered looking at a reasonable cross section of the evidence for a subject that affects them, and they don’t care what the real truth is in many cases.

The problem is that these people do tend to to affect society as a whole (for example by voting) even though they are incapable of making a reasonable decision. So they buy a lot of alternative medicines and make the charlatans rich, they dismiss climate change (for purely political reasons) and cause their political leaders to fail to act, and they prevent science being taught properly to a generation who really need it.

In a way its easy to see why people make bad friends. If I had a disease which required unpleasant conventional treatment and even then couldn’t be guaranteed to be completely successful I might be attracted by the claims of the alternative medicine proponents who claim to offer a guaranteed cure by just swallowing some herbs. And if climate change wasn’t true we could just carry on in the same wasteful way we do now. That’s much better than having to make any changes to our lifestyles. And I would certainly find the idea of a loving god and a heaven waiting after death better than a universe devoid of the supernatural.

I think it goes further than that though. I think it extends to an anti-intellectual bias. I often get the impression that behind climate change denial there’s a bigger issue, the denial of science itself. Sure we should be skeptical of what scientists tell us but we should also be skeptical (in fact more so) of right-wing bloggers who tell us the opposite. All it requires is to apply the same standards to both sides and look at all the evidence.

So what happens if we do that? People would use about 10 alternative medicines (the ones which might just work) instead of the (apparently) 10,000 I see in most shops. They would say that, while there is some doubt, the evidence for global warming is sufficiently good that we should act on it. And they would say, yes I enjoy the social aspects, the history and the other cultural aspects of religion but there is no god, no heaven and hell, and evolution and the big bang are well tested and well established theories.

But people are very good at selecting which evidence to believe and which not to. I could take some of them into a room full of books full of information supporting a theory and they would still prefer to believe a contradictory note hastily scribbled in crayon on a piece of paper by the door. I guess you just can’t force them into acting rationally!

Scientists Gloomy

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Most people would say that science is an important part of modern society. Some (including me) would say its the most important. Anyone who disagrees with this should give up the technology they use which is based on scientific discoveries: modern medicine, the internet, communications, etc, and then think again.

Because its so important its concerning that a recent study shows most scientists in New Zealand are very pessimistic about the profession and their future. Less than half would recommend science as a career to young people.

Its not that there’s anything wrong with science itself, its more that the paper work and competition for research money is dragging them down, accountability practices are a waste of time, and professional managers are in charge of something they don’t understand.

This seems to reflect what I see around me. There’s no doubt that the system for funding is ridiculously inefficient. Why pay these science experts to create funding applications (which are to a large extent a load of propaganda and politically correct garbage anyway) when they could be doing their real job instead? If anyone calculated how much it costs in time and salaries to administer I bet a lot of new research projects could be funded instead.

And even if the effort could be justified it seems that scientists have little faith in the process. Over a third have said it would be fairer to run a lottery! That’s right, they think just choosing which study to fund at random would be better than going through the current process. Actually its not a bad idea because it would cut down on the paper work and ensure a good, randomised mix of studies were selected.

And no one likes to be micromanaged by an ignorant manager (and most of them are). Running research institutions like companies and having professional managers in charge is surely the best way to ensure a mediocre scientific outcome.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Prominent New Zealand scientists Paul Callaghan says he has no sympathy for the science community and no one has right to taxpayer money without going through a competitive process. But Callaghan doesn’t seem to have done any science of note for many years (at least according to his Wikipedia profile) and seems to have a strong libertarian style political view so I think his opinion is worth very little.

The government says its trying to fix the problem (which it obviously recognises is real) but its really just fine tuning the details instead of making any significant changes. I agree that longer term contracts and simplified bureaucracy (if it actually happens) would have to be a positive move though, and better than nothing.

Everyone has to put up with this sort of nonsense to some extent, but that doesn’t make it right. Maybe if a better system could be devised for managing science then the same model could be applied to other areas, such as education.

My advise to politicians (who tend to be ex lawyers, managers and accountants) would be to do the opposite of what they think is right. You don’t make things better by having more paper work, or more managers, or more accountability. If you really want people to do their job instead of yours (administration) then let them do it. Fire the managers, shred the paper work, and let the accountability work through peer review. Honestly, it will work, just give it a try!

Apple’s Biggest Problems

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently read an interesting article where a commentator listed the 10 biggest problems with Apple. As an Apple “fanboy” (I have 11 Macs at home and a lot more at work, an iPhone, 4 iPods, and will get an iPad some time this year) I thought I needed to comment on this.

Problem 1 is Steve Jobs. Does Apple need Jobs for it to be successful? Well maybe. There certainly seems to be a link between Jobs running Apple and its success. During the time he was away from the company it almost failed, so maybe this is true.

They say no one is irreplaceable but Steve must be about as close as you can get! He does seem to know what people want and when they want it. There must be other people who could also do this but are they potential candidates for CEO of Apple? During the last time Steve was away Apple opted for traditional management and marketing types with predictably disastrous results!

Problem 2 is AT&T. This clearly isn’t such a big an issue because it only affects the iPhone and even then only in the US. Still, I agree that it was a stupid idea to trust one company which (according to opinions I have read because I’ve never used their network myself) provides pretty awful service and doesn’t seem to be too concerned about trying to fix it.

On the other hand we have several networks here in New Zealand where an iPhone can be easily used and all of them have significant problems, so maybe all cell service providers need to improve their ability to handle the needs of modern smart phones.

Problem 3 is computers. Specifically this is the conflict between the existing Apple laptops and the iPad. I disagree because, unlike the conflict between the Apple II and the Mac, we aren’t really talking about two products with the same functionality here. All of the people I know who use a computer would still need one even if they had an iPad. Many might be able to use an iPad as well but the people who will only use an iPad probably don’t have a computer at all now.

Problem 4 is the app store. There is a problem there, especially for developers who find the approval process frustrating. But users benefit from it in many ways: first, they can be reasonably sure the apps they buy are safe, compatible and of a reasonable quality; second, they only need to look in one place to find stuff; and third, the payment system is easy and safe.

So the app store is both a good and a bad thing but from most users’ perspectives it is good. The same applies to a related criticism: the lack of openness of Apple’s products. A purist might criticise this but to most users its an advantage for similar reasons to those I mentioned above.

So moving on to number 5 we have security. There’s no doubt that in the real world Apple products suffer very little from security flaws compared with Windows PCs. That might be mainly due to the size of the installed base or it might not, but either way it is real.

Security hasn’t been such a significant issue for Apple so far, and Windows 7 does have some security features Mac OS X lacks. This might turn into a big problem in the future and it might not. I think it is a point Apple should address now before the (almost inevitable) big security incident does happen.

Mobile Me is problem number 6. I use it and it works brilliantly for me so I don’t really agree about this. I don’t find that the web apps are very useful but I don’t find any other web apps useful either so that could be just the whole class which is at fault.

Problem number 7 is backup. Well if Time Machine isn’t easy enough for most people then I don’t know what is. Sure backup to the internet has some advantages but it has a lot of disadvantages as well. Plugging a cheap USB hard disk in and clicking a button is about as simple as I can imagine to get good backups so I don’t see this as a real problem.

For some reason Apple TV is problem number 8. This has never really been a mainstream product which Apple has put a lot of effort into so I don’t see how it can really be thought of as a major problem.

Problem number 9 is rivals, or lack of them. Does Apple need competition to succeed or does it succeed simply because it wants to create great products? The Mac, the iPhone and the iPod were all produced in an environment with no obvious big competitor producing comparable products. It was only after Apple showed how to do it that the competition did occur. So I would tend to reject this idea as well.

Finally we have the “about box” credits. The about box is the window which appears when the user choose “About this program” on a Mac. The lack of the programmers names there is seen as a problem but really, can we take that seriously? I didn’t see any programers’ names in Microsoft Word either (on the other hand, if I worked on that piece of junk I would want to remain anonymous).

So really these problems aren’t exactly disastrous! Most aren’t real problems at all or they are just the sort of thing that all similar companies have. I guess if this is the best list of problems an expert can come up with then Apple’s future is looking pretty good!