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Belief in Woo

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s almost Christmas again so I guess it’s also time to deal with belief in superstitious nonsense (also known as “woo”) again. A recent report showed that belief in the paranormal, superstition, and various other oddities is quite strong in new Zealand although it’s better than in some other countries like the US where superstition in the form of religious belief is much stronger.

There were various statistics presented in the report so I might just go through a few of them and comment on related matters of (I hope) interest.

According to the survey of 1000 people about a third think the Earth has been visited by aliens. So called “minority” groups such as Maori and Pacific people had a higher rate of belief than New Zealanders of European origin. I’m not sure what that means.

There’s nothing too silly about believing in aliens. After all, just about every rational person thinks there is life elsewhere in the Universe, that life should lead to intelligence at least in some cases, and that some intelligent life must be far more advanced than us since our planet formed almost 10 billion years after the Big Bang.

The problem is that if aliens have visited Earth they have certainly acted strangely. They seem to have been very obvious to certain groups of people and kept themselves well hidden from others (for example, very few UFO reports come from astronomers). So even if we think aliens should exist I think it’s still safest to work on the interim hypothesis that they haven’t visited Earth.

The same survey found that 55 per cent believe that some people have psychic power, such as ESP. I guess a lot of popular culture does push the idea that psychic powers are real and few people have much familiarity with the real research (and even then there are a few results which seem to support the idea) so this level of belief isn’t a surprise.

Psychic powers in general would require new laws of physics because it’s hard to see how they could be accommodated within the current understanding of the Universe, but they aren’t completely impossible. However the requirement to change the well understood laws of physics to explain a phenomenon which has almost zero evidence for existence is not rational. So people who believe in psychic powers are very likely either ignorant or irrational. Still, the fact that those labels apply to only just over half our population is actually fairly good!

The fact that women (67%), older people (63%), and Maori (60%) are more likely to believe is probably best left alone. It’s hard to comment on a phenomenon like that without seeming sexist, ageist or racist!

So what about that ultimate question: Does God exist? In New Zealand 60% of the population believe in a “god or universal spirit”. It’s rather unfortunate that the “universal spirit” bit was added there because I don’t think anyone (myself included) really knows what that means. It can mean so many different things that it really means nothing so the whole statistic is almost useless.

That result is actually quite low, especially when the “universal spirit” stuff is included. Obviously genuine religious belief is low here and other recent statistics seem to indicate it is declining. Good news at last!

Related to this 80% think that Jesus was a real person and 57% believe in life after death. Belief in Jesus as a real person is yet another question which is open to interpretation. Obviously the Bible stories aren’t true, and no rational person would believe them, if only for the reason that the stories are contradictory!

So how close to the traditional portrayal of Jesus would a real historic figure have to be before we could say he actually was the person described in the Bible (because he really wasn’t described anywhere else, a suspicious fact in itself)? Would it be sufficient to have someone who vaguely fitted the description? Should we say the Bible gospels are “based on a true story” like some movies?

Regarding life after death. Maybe this is based on wishful thinking although it was interesting to note that older people believed in it less than younger! There has been real research in this area with some interesting results but the more solid studies which should reveal good evidence have all revealed nothing, a classic sign of a phenomenon which doesn’t exist.

Yet again men were more cynical and women more credulous regarding the existence of god (and don’t forget that rather poorly defined “universal spirit”). Obviously women are more open to poorly supported ideas. Is this good or bad? I will leave it to you to decide!

Finally the saddest statistic of all: a quarter of the participants in the survey believe that astrology can predict the future. Astrology is really rather silly and I’m a bit surprised that belief in it is that high. Still, I suppose it’s all those women pushing the rate up!

Tax the Rich

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Is our society fair and equal? Should it be? And what do we mean by those terms anyway? I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that society is a lot less equal than it used to be and to most people that means it is also less fair. Most people (although certainly not all) would say that we want a fair society but the last point: what fairness and equality actually mean, is the tough one.

A recent OECD report highlighted the increasing unfairness in most societies and put the blame on modern economic policies. This is quite extraordinary from an organisation which has been associated with the economic mainstream in the past. There does seem to be a developing consensus that something must change (a point I’ve been making for years) and even the IMF has admitted the current system has gone too far.

New Zealand was once seen as a very egalitarian society but recently the gap between the rich and poor has increased here faster than most other countries. Between 1985 and 2008 this was particularly obvious. Of course this was triggered by the great 1984 economic experiment where neo-liberal economics was forced on the unsuspecting New Zealand public.

Predictably the current advocates of this ideology disagree that we have a problem. National and Act (the two right wing New Zealand parties) think we should stick with the same policies, but more of them! Yes, the policies which got us into the mess are what we need to get out of it, apparently. I think few people would agree with this analysis now.

The OECD report totally rejects the famous “trickle down” theory which claims that more money going to the rich also results in increased wealth for the poor. How anyone could believe such nonsense is almost incomprehensible but now we have official confirmation that it’s a lie, or worse maybe, a wrong but sincerely held belief of the neo-liberal camp.

It’s interesting to listen to our politicians discuss the subject. They just spout a load of unsubstantiated propaganda. Why do the interviewers let them away with this stuff? Still, at least Peters, Dunne and Banks commented. The finance minister didn’t even bother. I can imagine his thoughts on this: we’ve decided what we want to believe, please don’t bother us with the facts!

So I think it’s beyond doubt now that the economic theories most countries base their politics on lead to greater inequality, unemployment, worsening conditions, and social unrest. The question is this: would we be even worse off following a more interventionist Keynesian approach and is having distinct economic classes like this necessarily a bad thing?

Some people say the rich deserve what they have. They say they work hard for their money. But how do they know that? Many assume that if someone is rich they must have worked hard and they assume that if someone works hard they will get rich. It’s just worthless nonsense. In general (and this is a generalisation which there are exceptions for) the rich are rich because they are self centered and greedy and they have found a way to exploit society for their own benefit.

I say tax the rich hard (if they make over $250,000 tax them at 80%) Most people with extreme wealth say they don’t do it for the money anyway, and many are actually asking to be taxed more. Let’s give them their wish! If they don’t like it they can leave, because we don’t want them anyway.

Interventionist economics can be taken too far. Most people would say it had gone too far in New Zealand before the 1984 “revolution”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good approach if used more sensibly. Correcting one extreme economic situation by going even more extreme in the opposite direction isn’t a valid approach. Interventionism is really the only sensible solution but it must be used correctly.

When the so-called “markets” are allowed to rule we just end up with a very efficient system to do nothing of any value. We get people making a fortune by trading non-existent financial packages and manipulating markets and whole economies for their own benefit, while other people who are doing scientific research, trying to find a cure for diseases, and producing great art have no money to produce genuinely worthwhile outcomes.

We get real progress when long-term research, good education, and social equality are allowed to flourish. For that we need guidance from some entity which has real values beyond simple greed. Unfortunately that generally means governments, which have their own problems, but they are the best we have.

We need a revolution in how society works but that can’t happen quickly. Until that revolution happens (and it will) we need to re-align our current systems. We need to re-distribute the wealth. Yes, that is what the OECD said. We do need to tax the rich and tax them hard. But we should be careful with what we use that extra tax income for. It should go to truly useful education, health, technology, and scientific projects, because they are the only route to real progress.

It Might As Well Be Me

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

In a few recent sources (mostly podcasts) I have come across a recurring theme which relates to many current world problems. It’s what I call the “it might as well be me” syndrome. Actually, it might have been called that by others as well but I can’t find it anywhere so I’m claiming naming rights here!

This syndrome results from the idea that if anyone is going to do something which itself is bad then it might as well be me who does it. For example, if a resource, such as fish, is being overexploited then eventually the last fish will be taken. If that is going to happen anyway then I might as well be the person to take that last fish before anyone else does, since the end result is the same.

The same applies to many environmental and social phenomena, such as global warming, war, and exploitation of any natural resource.

What did the person think as he cut down the last tree on Easter Island, for example? He must have known that it meant disaster in the long term but he did it anyway. But since someone else was going to do it if he didn’t it was actually entirely sensible for that person to do it, just like it’s entirely sensible for individual countries to continue to pollute the atmosphere or decimate non-renewable resources because other countries would do the same thing if they didn’t.

It’s a classic case of the “prisoner’s dilemma” where a prisoner must either inform on his fellow prisoner or not, but where the punishment he receives depends on both his and his fellow’s actions. If neither informs there are few negative consequences, but if one does and the other doesn’t the informer gets off free but the person informed on has a harsh punishment. The best response is to stay silent as long as the other person also says nothing but that risks receiving the worst punishment if the other person does say something against you.

This phenomenon relies on individuals acting independently and exhibiting no collective wisdom and, as I said above, it’s the basic cause of many of the world’s problems. Why should a fishing company avoid overfishing and why should a forestry company log sustainably when they know that their competitor might not follow the same rules? Competition is usually touted as the solution to all of our problems but (although I admit it can produce good outcomes) the reality is that it actually the cause of most of them.

It’s a difficult problem to solve because being greedy and acting in what seems like an illogical and immoral way is actually the only sensible approach in these situations. It is actually entirely rational to act that way in a competitive environment where trust is uncertain. The prisoners’ should both betray their partner and individual countries or companies should act in the most self-serving way possible even though the final outcome for both will be worse.

The best solution is to remove the environment where these rules apply. We should base our economic and political systems more on cooperation than competition or we should introduce a higher authority than simple market pressures and have extremely strong controls in place to prevent individual behaviour being detrimental to the long term future of the majority.

That has been contrary to accepted wisdom for many years. But current economic dogma is increasingly obviously a failure. The outcome of neo-liberal economic strategies is clear both through the predictions of gaming theory and the actual observations of what is happening in the world. We should start making the necessary changes now rather than waiting for them to be forced on us. Do we want the whole world to end up like Easter Island?

Education Standards

December 2, 2011 Leave a comment

I often hear interesting stories of apparent incompetence from many different areas, and education is no exception. I wont mention any names, or even the school involved, because it is unfair to criticise individuals without giving them the chance to defend themselves. Yes, I know that I do that to public figures but I think that by becoming politicians, entertainers, etc these people no longer require the protection of anonymity.

First I want to mention a materials scientist who was being interviewed in a podcast who claimed the atomic number of iron was 56 and that it had an odd number of electrons. I’m a computer consultant/programmer and have only a passing interest in chemistry but even I know the atomic weight of iron is (approximately) 56 and that it’s atomic number is actually 26. Also, last time I checked, 26 is an even number, not odd!

I guess it’s easy to say something in a pressure situation like a public interview that you would know is wrong if you thought about it in a more relaxed situation but I hear this sort of stuff all the time. Many of the computer technology commentators I hear interviewed for example say some really interesting stuff. The basic knowledge of the public regarding sci-tech is poor enough already without them being mislead by “experts”.

But why is the basic knowledge of science and technology so poor? Maybe it’s because the teaching of the subject is also poor. Here’s a few interesting stories from that school I mentioned above…

The ICT (information and communications technology) teacher uses Netscape Navigator as her web browser. According to Wikipedia (I wonder if she’s heard of that) the final release of Navigator was in 2007. And yes, it does matter, because the web is a very quickly evolving environment where browsers need to be constantly improved to keep up with new standards such as HTML5.

I have also heard in that class that the teacher is just as often the pupil because the more IT literate members of the class often have to show her how to do things. Sure, it’s tough trying to keep up with the latest in an area like IT but you would think a teacher might be able to do a bit better than that!

In the same school I have been told that the class was told by their social studies teacher that global warming is all made up. Luckily a lot of the class hold the teachers, and the school in general, in such low regard that they didn’t take them too seriously, but this is not only incompetent it’s actually malicious. Most global warming deniers have moved on from denying it is happening to denying that humans caused it. Maybe this clown hasn’t caught up with the latest dogma yet.

Again at this school (I have to say this is certainly not the best school in town but it’s not the worst either) there is a maths teacher who told his class that they would get detentions unless they learnt the New Zealand national anthem in Maori in a few days. This was just before the end of year exams when the students probably had more critical things to do. I don’t think he carried out the threat but I do wonder if anyone failed the exam because they learnt something totally useless instead.

Finally I want to recount another anecdote regarding ICT. During the end of year exam the computer systems were so badly set up that the exam had to be postponed. The computers took 30 minutes (I’m assured this is genuine but there may have been some exaggeration) to launch Word, and then the link to the internet failed. This was the PC lab and the Mac lab works better of course, but even so it does seem rather incompetent.

So these anecdotes indicate some teachers are out of date, ignorant, malicious, politically motivated and incompetent. Of course, it is easy to present any organisation in a bad light if you just list the bad points and ignore the good, and I’m sure there are good points about this school, although I can’t think of any right now. I am also sure that I could make any organisation look bad by listing incidents like this (I certainly could for one place in particular which I won’t name here).

You might think that a libertarian agenda of performance based pay and personality tests for new teachers might help in these situations but I don’t think so. The problem with paying on performance is the definition of that word. It often gets back to who is the best at filling out the paper work and who is most skilled at petty office politics rather than who is genuinely the best at their actual core job (teaching rather than filling in forms) so I have no confidence in that process. And the idea of requiring a personality test is frankly quite scary. I dread to think what sort of mindless automatons are likely to arise from a system like that.

So whatever the education system’s deficiencies might be I think it could be worse. The fact is half of the teachers we have are below average, but doesn’t that apply to everyone?