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Some Interesting Ideas

June 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The New Zealand politician Hone Harawira won the Te Tai Tokerau by-election recently and considering the low turnout he did moderately well. But he was standing in a Maori seat which doesn’t necessarily react in the same way as general electorates so I don’t think we should read too much into the fact that Hone (who is a radical and a bit unorthodox) and his new party have gained this victory.

It is significant that the Maori Party (which previously held the seat with Hone as its candidate) failed miserably. I guess that when a single issue party gets “cozy” with a right wing conservative party like National there will be consequences. Who knows whether the Maori party will win any seats at all at the next election. They don’t really deserve to.

It’s interesting to note the trend that small parties which cooperate with big ones tend to fail shortly afterwards. Winston Peters could probably attest to that and Act are having to re-invent themselves (or is that really a return to their original mission) to survive being in coalition with National.

But those political musings aren’t what I am actually interested in. At this point I am more interested in the Mana Party’s new policies. On the surface they look fairly extreme but are they really? And do they actually have any merit?

The first policy is “GST off power bills”. Great idea, except let’s also take GST off other items which are basic to a reasonable life style. I would prefer to see the whole competitive electricity market dismantled and electricity sold by the government at a subsidised price but removing GST is a good step in the right direction at least. So that policy is a good start. Points out of 10: 7.

The next is to “review the tax regime”. Obviously there is not enough detail there to really comment but I would imagine the review would lead to increased taxes on the rich and to introducing a tax system which reduces some of the recent gross gains by corporations and the richest members of society. Again, great idea. Without details it’s hard to really score this but let’s say 7 out of 10 as an interim score.

Then there is “campaign for a Hone Heke tax, a financial transaction tax of one cent in the dollar”. I don’t know if I like the label “Hone Heke” but let’s get past that and look at the idea itself. Yes, let’s do it. One cent is almost nothing but it would still generate a lot of revenue because it would apply to so many things. And if it discourages some of the meaningless investment in New Zealand then I say bring it on! Score: 8 out of 10.

Next is “review ETS scheme. Polluters pay.” Of course. Why not? It’s obvious that this is only fair. If we are going to have an emissions trading scheme let’s have one which is fair. If agriculture is polluting (which it clearly is) then it must pay. Now. Score out of 10: 8.

Next is “oppose youth rates.” Again I can’t argue with that. Employers are always saying they want to pay based on productivity. There’s no good reason why productivity should be significantly related to age, just like there’s no reason that it should be majorly affected by gender. Youth rates are just inherently unfair. Score: 8 again.

Now we come to the more controversial policies relating to Maori issues. First is “no Treaty settlement deadline.” Actually I agree. I would like to see treaty settlements only made on very clear cases of wrongdoing and I would like to see the proceeds shared amongst all Maori, but I can’t see why there should be a limit on the time to do this. But I don’t think Hone would agree with tightening the process so he only gets 4 out of 10 for this.

Then there’s “Te Reo compulsory.” Does this mean every New Zealander has to be fluent in the Maori language? Sorry Hone but that’s a silly idea. Most people both aren’t interested in learning Maori and probably have more important things to do anyway. Making a politically inspired idea compulsory is a sure way to create resentment. I know that some subjects are unpopular but are still taught (maths would be an example) but maths is useful. Learning what is essentially a dead language seems far from having any utilitarian value. Points out of 10: 2 (and that’s being generous).

Finally there is “The Treaty of Waitangi and 1835 Declaration of Independence at heart of constitutional arrangements.” And this is where everything starts falling apart. Can I give negative points? OK, I’ll be generous and give this zero!

So as long as they keep away from silly Maori radical politics I think these ideas are good. I think the Green Party is good too, until it lapses into silly extreme policies. Even Act has some good ideas until it starts pushing its discredited extreme economic dogma. Unfortunately there is no party (except for possibly Labour) which hasn’t got some extreme political views.

So while a lot of people see Hone (notice how I use his first name unlike other politicians where I use their surname – he’s just that sort of person) as a nutter or an extremist I say we need a few people like that around. If all politicians were totally professional and followed the standard model of behaviour what would be the point? We need some diversity in politics and having people like Hone around certainly gives us that!

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Period Problems

June 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m quite enthusiastic about reasoned debate, even when (or especially when) it is controversial and involves subjects not normally discussed. Examples of topics which should be open to reasoned discussion but which are often off limits include: the possible merits of regimes considered to be the enemy (such as al Qaeda), real differences between groups of people (such as different races), and differences between men and women.

In most cases it is considered appropriate to demonstrate bias in one direction but not another. For example, using the word “freedom” in conjunction with western military forces is fine but call a “terrorist” a freedom fighter and you are branded a criminal. Or admire the achievements of a racial minority as much as you want but never suggest the dominant race (yes, I know races don’t technically exist) has any advantages. And saying a woman has done a great job because she’s a female is admired but what about the opposite?

So in some ways I was quite surprised with Alasdair Thompson’s courage in stating his beliefs regarding why pay inequity between men and women exists. But in other ways I was rather disgusted at his performance.

His argument seemed to be that women are paid less because they are less productive, and the major reason they are less productive because they take more sick leave, and a large factor in the increased sick leave is period problems.

There are several issues here: first, are women less productive; second, do they take more sick leave; third, is that because of problems relating to periods; fourth, if all that is true should they be penalised because of it; and finally, is this a discussion we should be even allowing instead of just getting on with improving pay inequity.

OK, so those are the issues (actually there is one more but I’ll leave that to the end of this entry) so let’s look at them…

Are women less productive? I have never been able to find a reputable and consistent source of information on this, although there are studies indicating differences they are hard to use to reach an overall conclusion. Not only that but I think productivity is a difficult thing to measure and is often largely a matter of perception and personal bias more than anything else.

So saying women are less productive than men isn’t necessarily wrong but it is highly debatable. Thompson himself mentioned several anecdotes but couldn’t provide any real data even when challenged on the topic.

But let’s just accept the highly doubtful claim about productivity and move on to point two: do women take more sick leave? Numerous studies seem to indicate that this is actually true. The figure seems to be that women take about one and a half times as much short term sick leave as men, but about the same long term leave. Studies over several years and in multiple countries seem to be consistent on this.

Again Thompson had only anecdotes on this point which seems to indicate that if he was right it was more through luck than real fact finding. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt at this point and move on.

Is the extra leave women take due to menstrual related problems? It’s difficult to tell because of the lack of many good studies but there seems to be some interest – from governments, companies, unions, and employees – in leave specifically to cater for this problem. So again there is no good data supporting the idea (and yet again Thompson just presented personal anecdotes) so the best I could say is that the idea isn’t impossible.

What about point 4? Even if all of the preceding points are true and women really are less productive because of what Thompson calls “monthly sickness” is it fair to penalise them because of it? Maybe in the sick business focussed world he lives in that would be justifiable but I think the majority of people are backing away from that purely money based view of what is right and wrong.

I also can’t help but think that a lot of the perception of productivity is just that. It’s an assumption reinforced by supporting incidents and where negating evidence is conveniently forgotten. Thompson says his organisation fully supports equal pay and all of the other reforms which have been introduced, but these are legal requirements so I would have to wonder whether he would be quite as supportive if they weren’t law.

And I would also be interested to hear his views on youth rates. The government wants to allow young workers to be paid less than the minimum wage. This is a view which I am sure I have heard most employers (including Thompson’s organisation) support. What happened to equal pay for equal productivity there? If minimum rates of pay irrespective of age was no longer a legal requirement would employers still support it just because it’s the right thing to do? Of course not!

So after all of the above I come to the final point: is this a discussion we should even be having? I think so because everything is worth discussing. But I think the way it has been handled in this case is so poor that it is not only going to make Thompson’s view look ridiculous (presumably the opposite to what he intended) but it is also going to make it harder for anyone to start a more useful, fact-based, discussion on the subject.

But what was the extra point I mentioned at the start? Just this: people like Thompson really don’t give employers good positive public relations. He comes across as an ignorant, arrogant, nasty, self-centered, rude, inflexible fool. The way he bullied his way through the interview on TV last night was quite shocking. I have never seen anyone handle a situation like that so poorly before. So another word to be added to the already extensive list of criticisms is incompetent!

It’s worrying that employers would think it’s OK to have someone like this representing them (even if they are considering firing him now because of public pressure), but I have seen examples of that sort of stupidity and ignorance in employers too. They have grown to have a very inflated idea of their own value, and when their authority is challenged – even when it is through asking reasonable questions that they don’t like (like those in the interview) – they resort to bullying, intimidating, or just refusing to cooperate.

And I must comment on his paranoid conspiracy ideas regarding who is criticising him. Apparently he thinks his critics are political opponents (mainly from the Labour Party), or socialists or communists. That’s another example of unsubstantiated mindless drivel which just makes him look like an even bigger buffoon than had already been apparent. Maybe he should just take the advice some commentators offered tonight: “just shut up”.

The best thing about this incident is perhaps that we now see the way that many employers really do think when their usual disguise of civility is removed. I hope it makes people think about what sort of society we want: one which gives this sort of person even more power or one which is more interested in the best outcome for the majority. If this represents the way a lot of our “esteemed” business leaders really think then I think we should be worried… even if you’re not a woman!

Economics Debunked

June 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve always been suspicious of commerce and finance, both in their practical form (business) and in their academic form (economics). I’ve often thought that economics is a bit of a joke, a pseudoscience, or a field of study with no real credibility and which is more based on dogma and personal preference than facts.

But at other times I’ve thought that maybe that attitude is a bit unfair. Maybe I’m just being an “economics denialist” like the people I so often criticise who are global warming deniers or evolution deniers. One of the attributes of a good skeptic is to be able to recognise the possibility of delusion in yourself and to avoid becoming like the people who are clearly delusional but can’t even see it.

But if economics is a real science then why do things so often go wrong, why is the human race such an under-achiever, and why isn’t the world economy more controlled and more tuned to producing good outcomes? Some people would say it’s because we don’t follow modern economic theory closely enough. They would say that the global financial crisis for example, was caused by too much interference and regulation rather than not enough.

I have always doubted this conclusion. What credibility can we give a philosophy which has been forced on the world, failed obviously and catastrophically, and then whose only response is more of the same but in a more extreme form? It’s clearly nonsense.

A recent podcast I listened to made me a feel a bit less alone on this issue. Three doubters of modern economic theory were interviewed: Ha Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism; Robert Wade, former World Bank economist and professor of economics at the London School of Economics; and Steve Keen, the author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences.

Their basic message is that economics has been taken over by neo-liberal theory. That is the theory that the best economy is one with zero intervention, that the markets will always produce the best result, and that free market capitalism is the best model. This idea maybe originates with Adam Smith but gained prominence thanks to economist Milton Friedman and so-called philosopher Ayn Rand. Prior to this theory becoming dominant most governments followed a more interventionist approach based on the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes. (By the way, I’m not an expert on this subject myself so I hope these gross generalisations aren’t too far from the truth!)

So how do we really know that neo-liberal (or laissez-faire) economics is a failure? I would say there are three main reasons to doubt it, if not reject it totally. They are: logical, technical, and practical (words which I decided to use and will explain below).

So what are the logical reasons? Let’s just look at the processes and motivations of free capitalism. It encourages the individual to maximise his own profits at whatever cost. The theory is that negative consequences of this activity will be compensated for by the market so there’s no further need to correct them. But surely no one can really believe this because many of the negative consequences aren’t economic in nature: they might be social or environmental for example. How can an economic system compensate for something outside its influence?

And this “free market” which people often mention doesn’t exist. If we had a genuinely free market then slavery, child labour, gross abuse of the environment, and every other excess of the worst days of capitalism would be allowed. Few people – even neo-liberals – would want this situation, in which case they are really rejecting a truly free market. If the free market is a fiction then the market they do operate in results from regulation which very much contradicts their fundamental dogma.

There are various technical reasons which I have no details about, but the interviews specifically said that one of the most basic tenets of neo-liberalism is that individual results can be summed to give the result for the community as a whole. But this ignores emergent properties. So the basic theory and maths behind economics is fundamentally flawed.

And what about practical reasons? In a real science theory is always tested in real life before it can be taken seriously. I don’t see a lot of evidence of this in economics. Look at almost any indicator you like and you will see that since the switch from Keynesian economics to neo-liberalism there has been a change for the worse (especially in debt). Except maybe if you happen to be a rich banker, financier or speculator. In that case the system might suit you really well!

Look at the latest failure of economics: the global financial crisis. The people who benefitted from the relatively non-interventionist environment which had been created were suddenly very happy to accept a hefty dose of Keynesian style interventionism in the form of enormous bail-outs. Yet now that they have been rescued they expect to return to the failed policies of the past – and most governments are allowing it. Surely everyone can see what a travesty this is. We need to control these morally corrupt individuals, and government regulation (whatever its faults) is the only way it can be done.

Keynes was right all along. How much more damage can be done by blindly following the currently fashionable economic theories that the pseudo-scientists of economics tell us are best? How much longer will it be before people see that worshipping the “free market” and “pure capitalism” only helps a small number of people at the very top of the heap? And is it not obvious that those people on the top in almost every case are corrupt and totally self-centered?

Obviously there are people who don’t just blindly follow along with the currently held view: there are economists who do hold contrary views, there are capitalists who genuinely try to improve the world, and there are politicians who want to use regulation to get positive results. But they seem to be in the minority and therefore have little ability to make positive changes. People need to break free from the unthinking mindset that free market capitalism is best – then we can look for something better.

Executive Expectations

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

What expectations should we have of our leaders? For example, is it sufficient for a chief executive to simply take the “traditional approach” and maximise his company’s income for the financial year? Can his performance be measured simply by looking at the balance sheet at the end of the year?

In the past the answer might have been “yes” but I don’t think it ever should have been and I don’t think it will be in the future. Simply maximising the profit of an organisation is too simple. If that’s all the CEO does why does he get paid so much? All of the decisions we seem to hear about are the simple, obvious ones. I could make those decisions so why are these “geniuses” being paid so much to make them?

A specific example of this phenomenon has come to the fore recently when the CEO of New Zealand’s railway company, KiwiRail, made the decision to source new equipment from China instead of having them made by his own company’s workshops here in Dunedin.

The price from China was a bit cheaper (around 20% is the number I heard) and there is a suggestion that the time to deliver the equipment would have been less, but are these advantages sufficient to negate the disadvantages of removing work from the local economy (which has already lead to job losses)? Also, is the quality of manufacture likely to be as good from China and are other factors such as the environmental and social aspects likely to be the same?

I suspect not, and that extra 20% of cost seems to be well worth it. And if the time taken to fulfill the contract locally is a bit longer why wasn’t it offered with a greater amount of time available? I suspect there was never any question about where the contract would go. The easy and lazy answer was to have the manufacturing done in China. Other factors such as the environment would have been effectively ignored.

So if it’s really so simple what are these CEOs actually doing? I suspect, like most management, basically nothing. Of course we can’t really blame them. If I could get paid a lot of money for doing very little and just applying some simple formulaic “best practice” rules to running a company I would probably accept the position. Actually I wouldn’t because unlike most senior managers I have moral values.

So these managers are unlikely to suddenly take a fresh approach and seriously consider all the relevant points when making their decisions, and their lack of morality means they are unlikely to take social and environmental factors into account. What is the answer?

Realistically the government needs to be providing more guidance to the private sector (and to state-owned enterprises like KiwiRail). Social and environmental effects can be factored into business. Climate change can be made part of business decisions through the use of carbon trading schemes (although I would far prefer a carbon tax). Why not have a social credits trading scheme as well? The government could offer incentives for maintaining the local workforce and disincentives for having work done in polluting “slave labour” economies like China. That seems like that is the only way that business could really contribute to the big picture.

It’s no secret that I’m not a great fan of capitalism but realistically there is little alternative. But at least let’s control it and steer it in the right direction. The unthinking ideologs who think that free markets and unrestrained capitalism the answer to anything except social and environmental disaster have already lost their credibility.

It’s time to move on to having a more complete aim for business success rather than just a few simple numbers on a balance sheet. It’s time we had higher expectations of business executives. And if they can’t do their job properly we should throw them out and hire someone who can. It won’t be easy, but why should it be?

The Cloud

June 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The latest buzzword in computing for a few years now has been the “cloud”. The concept is that information is stored in non-specific locations on the internet for computer users who don’t know (or need to know) exactly where or how their information is stored.

I blogged about my thoughts regarding this trend about 2 years ago in an entry titled “A Cloudy Future” on 2009-08-03. The issues I talked about then haven’t changed much… or maybe they have.

There are several advantages to the cloud approach. First, the documents stored in the cloud are available to any device connected to the cloud (internet). So if a person needs a document but they don’t have their computer handy they can get it by logging in to their cloud account from a different computer. The same applies to other devices like tablets and smart phones. Sharing between devices like these should be transparent.

A second advantage is that the information (documents, music, movies, photos, etc) doesn’t need to be stored on the actual device in use so it’s possible to build tablet computers (for example) with small amounts of storage (making them cheaper, lighter, and less power hungry) while still having access to lots of data.

Other potential advantages include the fact that (presumably) the data is backed up by the company operating the cloud service. And with really fast internet it might even be possible to get a performance advantage as well.

There are a few disadvantages though. First, many people do not have fast networking available to them so in most cases documents stored in the cloud will be slower to access than those stored locally. There is also the problem of being disconnected from the internet completely: on a plane or in a remote area with no cell or wifi cover, for example.

Then there’s the possible cost involved. Many cloud services are free to a point but it might get expensive if the user has a lot of data. And depending on what data plans are in use the process of accessing the data will incur extra costs for the transfer.

Many cloud services rely on specialised applications to access the data. These are often web based and are usually considerably less powerful and more difficult to use than their desktop equivalents. So using cloud services might lead to a loss of functionality as well.

Finally there is security. Should users trust a cloud service provider which reads their information and inserts ads, for example? Is the data transferred in a secure and encrypted way? And has the provider taken sufficient steps to guard against its facility being hacked?

Now that I have got the introduction out of the way I want to consider the main point of this entry: Apple’s iCloud service. I don’t generally like commenting on products or services I haven’t used but I will make a few preliminary comments here and maybe comment further after I have actually used it for a while.

It seems to me that Apple are doing the cloud the way it should be done. Instead of a primary storage system it is used more as a distribution system. In other words, most of the documents exist on the individual devices like they always have. Because these are just documents they can be accessed using the same programs people have always used. And if there is slow or even no internet service all that happens is that synchronisation is temporarily stopped until the internet connection is re-established.

It’s very much like modern email systems where the same account can be accessed from multiple devices but the devices can still operate fully off-line as well. The email messages exist primarily on the server but they are cached locally on each device for when the network is unavailable and to improve performance.

There are some potential issues with this approach. For example, if more than one person modifies the same document off-line which copy is used when the connection returns? This is the sort of detail which Apple will have to get right if iCloud is going to be fully successful.

Many other issues seem to have already been answered: Apple will not scan the content of the documents it stores, it will not insert ads, it will encrypt data as it is sent and received, and it will provide a reasonable basic amount of storage for free.

I regularly use a Mac laptop, an iPad and an iPhone. I also use many other Macs for specific purposes (as servers for example) so a synchronisation service running through the cloud seems like it would be really useful to me.

iCloud isn’t the first cloud service but the Mac wasn’t the first computer, the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, the iPad wasn’t the first tablet, and the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. All of these products weren’t the first but they are the best. If Apple does this properly then iCloud could be the best too.

Vaccination Strategies

June 13, 2011 Leave a comment

A news story which ran recently here in New Zealand reported on reactions to a school which refused to allow unimmunised children to attend during an outbreak of measles. A lot of discussion was shown but at no time were the parents asked why they didn’t have the free and well publicised immunisations done, although one mother said she made a “well informed” decision not to do it.

I suspect it wasn’t well informed of course, because anyone who is well informed will have the treatment done. Being extensively informed is not the same as being well informed. A person who can quote a few facts about immunisation, such as it offers good but not total protection, that side effects are real but rare, and that an immunisation rate of about 90 to 95% gives benefit to those who cannot be immunised is better informed than someone who can quote 100 incorrect, outdated, or misleading bits of propaganda, such as immunisation causes autism!

The health professionals said they didn’t want to make immunisation compulsory because people had the right to refuse it, but I think there is a case to say that they don’t actually have that right. If a parent refuses medical treatment for their child which could save the child’s life the state can step in and override the parent’s wishes. Since measles can lead to serious consequences and occasionally death is there not a case to say that the freedom to refuse treatment could be overridden here too?

In some ways the case should be stronger in fact because unless the magic 90% or more of the population are immunised herd immunity won’t occur and there will be no protection for those who can’t be immunised for genuine reasons or for the small number where immunisation fails.

On the other hand I listened to a podcast today where an historian talked about the history of the understanding and treatment of infectious diseases, especially cholera. He mentioned cases going back over 100 years and as recently as during the Haiti disasters. In that case genuine attempts to help were rejected by many people because they suspected conspiracies to cause harm by the authorities who wanted to treat them with modern medical techniques.

So it seems that forcing treatment on people will often be counter-productive even though the increasing silliness of the vaccine denial crowd is endangering everyone. Maybe a better approach would be to have an expert available to show people the real facts so that they are genuinely better informed. A GP could normally do this but they are often too busy so it might be worthwhile to hire a new type of health professional with this specific task. Sure it would cost money but think what it might save in the long run through reduced healthcare costs.

I think a lot of people would respond to this if the real statistics, the evidence of lies and ignorance from the anti-vaccination groups, and the possible negative effects of failure to vaccinate were pointed out. There would be some so tied up with the imagined conspiracy that they would never believe the truth no matter how it was presented but they would be in the minority. It should at least be enough to allow the herd immunity effect to work again.

But I don’t think that sort of initiative would ever happen because political and business activities are almost always short term. Maybe a propaganda (oops, I mean information) campaign on TV would be more appropriate. One emphasising the social consequences of not immunising would be best: consequences like having your child kept out of school and possibly endangering other people.

That would work for some of the deniers but not the die-hard conspiracy theory believers. They are beyond all hope.

A Force for Good?

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently read an article in the New Zealand Herald which claimed that the web (and by extension the internet as a whole) is a force for good rather than evil. Plenty of people disagree with this conclusion in various ways: they might cite the decline of traditional media, the alleged shallowness of the web, or the decreased real social interaction which has been subsumed by on-line social sites. So who is right?

Like everything else (and I really do mean everything because nothing is all good or all bad) there are good and bad aspects of the internet. One of the more obvious attributes of the web is its ability to let anyone post material. This is good because people with alternative ideas can get information out there but it’s bad for exactly the same reason. There are two types of alternative ideas: good ones and bad ones.

That was a rather fatuous answer so maybe I should clarify it. There is information being spread on the internet which isn’t politically acceptable or is being suppressed by powerful organisations (including governments) or is so new that it hasn’t made it into other media yet. This is good. Then there is information which is deliberately misleading or proven to be wrong beyond reasonable doubt. This is bad.

For example, Wikileaks has distributed a lot of information which has revealed what’s really happening behind the scenes of international events such as the so-called war on terror. This is information that the voting public should know about and it would be impossible to distribute widely without the internet. New information on any topic imaginable is distributed every day on web sites. NASA uses Twitter to give real-time updates on its missions. Email is an incredibly efficient way to carry out discussions over longer time periods. Most people would agree that this is all good.

But look in the wrong places and you can be terribly misinformed as well. In fact there are millions of sites dedicated to misinformation. If you want to get a very convincing (but essentially untrue) reason to reject global warming you will have no trouble finding it on the internet. If you want to find proof of alien visitation, or the efficacy of homeopathy, or the truth of the Christian creation myth, or how the US government were responsible for 9/11 you will find it in many places. Most people would agree that is bad.

Actually some would say it is good but only for the myth they want to believe. For example I know someone who would ridicule the alien abduction sites but totally accept the global warming denial sites without question. And I know another who thinks global warming denial is just silly rejection of the truth but still believes what he sees on creationist sites. Huh? Do these people not see the inconsistency here?

Actually, to be fair, it can be hard to tell truth from fiction some times. Many of the pseudoscientific sites I mentioned above look quite convincing. A lot of the creationist material looks professional and cites its sources, for example. You have to look more closely and see the scientific papers cited actually don’t support the conclusions on the site to realise it’s all a facade. But that does take extra time and a certain amount of expertise in reading scientific material so it’s not surprising that many people are fooled.

So clearly the designers of those types of sites are using the web for evil purposes. Actually even that’s not necessarily true because I think a lot of them believe they genuinely are doing the right thing even when they must know they are being deceptive. Maybe the end justifies the means for them.

In a perfect world the internet would be a place where all ideas could be presented and debated in a reasoned way. The creationist sites would allow feedback so that there errors could be corrected (I always find it interesting that atheist and science sites usually allow feedback but creationism sites rarely do – maybe they have something to hide). And internet users would have enough skills to look at the varying opinions and the contradictory facts and come to reasonable conclusions about what’s most likely to be true.

Unfortunately human nature more or less guarantees that will never happen. Most people will visit the sites which tell them what they want to hear and will ignore the rest. Of course that behaviour can occur through more traditional information sources such as books and other old media as well but the internet does make it a lot easier.

So it seems that the internet does have a dark side. It’s quite likely that the increasing divisions between political, religious, and social beliefs is significantly because of the polarising nature of many internet information sources.

Give people a great tool like the internet and just like everything else they will misuse it. But like the famous line says “the truth is out there”. People just have to get a lot better at finding it and, more importantly, they need to value the hard truth more than convenient myths.