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Who Are the Heroes?

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Who are the heroes in modern society, especially in a society where the internet plays an increasingly important role? Some might claim a conventional answer to the question: politicians, movie stars, sport celebrities, etc, but I’m not so sure.

I think the heroes might be the people who are stirring up trouble by using the internet to push the boundaries: people like Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom! The fact that both of these heroes are currently in legal “difficulties” makes them even more heroic to those of us who reject the status quo.

I agree that there are significant complicating factors in both cases. Dotcom must have known that his site was being used for both illegal and immoral purposes, and Assange released material without full regard for the problems it might cause. Also Dotcom made a lot of money out of a service which was really just a copy of something which had been done many times before, and Assange used his site to further his own fame. So yes, these heroes are flawed, just like all real heroes. That’s what makes them so much more interesting.

Whatever faults these two might have I would be far more concerned about the faults the action against them has revealed in how the legal system (the system that some people incongruously call the “justice” system) works.

I think most people would say that the New Zealand police force is fairly free from corruption and that most cops genuinely try to do a good job but it’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that they can be trusted less and less. There is a clear trend to using tactics which are out of proportion to the alleged crime.

Dotcom’s case is just the most obvious one where the police have been totally out of line. Someone should be fired over that for sure. If I was on that police team I would be leaking information about those responsible: probably to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks site!

And there’s the point I’m trying to make: the internet is the one thing which gives the majority of people a way to fight back. And that is no doubt why the corporations and organisations who feel so threatened by it are trying to stop it using the draconian, dishonest, violent, and immoral methods we have seen.

Every time I hear of another victory in court for Dotcom (and there have been plenty) I feel that there is still some hope for the New Zealand legal system, even though our police were clearly hijacked by the FBI to do their dirty work for them. But in the future we shouldn’t even let the police be used like that to start with.

Assange’s case isn’t going so well unfortunately. Yesterday he lost his UK extradition appeal even though it’s obvious to most people that he was clearly set up for political purposes. Of course, it was part of his flawed character that he allowed that to happen.

There are a lot of rather shady deals going on behind the scenes but most of them are not being initiated by the side you would think. Who are the heroes? They’re certainly not who many people think they are!

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The Crazy Ones

May 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

That is the text of an Apple advertising campaign from a few years back. And if you own a Mac have a look at the icon for the TextEdit application. Expand it as much as you can and you will see the entire paragraph on the icon. High resolution icons are great, as is the attention to detail Apple puts into their products!

But what about the truth of the statement itself? Are “the crazy ones” the people who really move the world forward or are they just a nuisance (or even a danger to society) that we just have to put up with?

The answer is both. There are two types of crazy ones: those who are misunderstood geniuses, and those who really are just crazy! Unfortunately it can be hard to tell the different and to a certain extent it depends on your perspective anyway.

Apple produced a set of posters for the campaign which included these “crazy ones”: Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, John Huston, Albert Einstein, Miles Davis, Jim Henson, Maria Callas, Martha Graham, Joan Baez, Ted Turner, the Dalai Lama, Ansel Adams, and Bob Dylan.

I have no doubt that a lot of worthwhile things can be achieved by people following the rules and working within the system. But I also think that the most fundamental new discoveries and creations are made by people who are working outside of the system that most others occupy.

No one who is “fond of rules” and “respects the status quo” is likely to achieve anything genuinely original. On the other hand it is possible to take the “craziness” too far. Because of my interest in skepticism I often find myself reading material by people who see themselves as a “crazy one” in the good sense but in fact are crazy in the bad sense!

This would include people who think they have designed a perpetual motion machine, or believe in crazy theories like the electric universe or hollow Earth, or think that advanced aliens or God has revealed some deep secret to them that no one else knows. They fulfil all the criteria in the statement until you get to the “They push the human race forward” part.

In many cases the distinction is obvious. Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman both seem a bit eccentric but no one could have any real doubt that they were geniuses who pushed human progress forward more than a million people who sit around in committees following the rules and respecting the status quo.

But that shouldn’t be an excuse to act crazy and still expect to be treated like a genius. Odd as it may seem, being crazy isn’t enough! Often when people are challenged over their controversial or unproven ideas they might say: they laughed at (insert genius of choice: Einstein, Galileo, etc) too! My answer is: yes, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown, was he a scientific genius?

So there is a risk that if we follow my idea and give “the crazy ones” more freedom and influence we will end up with some real crazies where we don’t want them, but the potential advantages to giving true geniuses more influence is worth it. So yes, here’s to the crazy ones!

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Zero

May 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Yesterday the National government of New Zealand delivered it’s budget. It was called the “zero budget” because there was supposed to be a zero total change in spending. But it could just have easily been called a zero budget because it has zero new ideas, or zero integrity, or zero fairness, or zero credibility!

Many people have been critical of the budget and even those who support it generally say something fairly insipid like “it was the responsible thing to do in difficult financial times”. But is nothing the correct response in these situations? Some would recommend an austerity approach while others would suggest the opposite. But the zero budget was neither.

Of course doing nothing is better than doing something stupid, like pursuing the types of policies the right are recommending in Europe, so I suppose we should be happy with what we got. In fact with a terrible government like we have doing nothing is about the best we can expect.

And yes, In know it’s not all bad. There are one or two things in the budget which are OK. And I know it’s not easy, especially in the difficult fiscal circumstances we find ourselves in.

But the real problem is a result of the government’s tax cuts for the rich. If they hadn’t given that $2 billion hand out to the rich a few years back the country would be far better off. Not only would the tax take be greater but there would be the perception of greater fairness.

Handing out all that extra cash to the rich pigs feeding from their trough of excess while removing tax credits for people who make next to nothing (like kids delivering papers) is evil. Sorry, but there’s no other word for it. Surely the New Zealand public are starting to see what a bunch of bumbling buffoons, immoral scumbags, and sleazy con artists these people actually are.

Not that Labour is much better. The more I watch the two traditional parties the more likely it is that I will be to be voting Green next election. I think Russel Norman’s performance has been very impressive. He sounds intelligent, reasonable and above all – and unlike all the rest – fair and compassionate.

So I think I’m ready to assign marks out of 10 for this budget now: zero. And that’s being generous!

Still Thinking Different

May 24, 2012 Leave a comment

I have a t-shirt with the phrase “Think Different” emblazoned across it. Above that is the Apple logo which clearly links the phrase to the Apple advertising campaign of a few years back. But I think the idea can be used in a much wider sense so, like the “I think therefore iMac” I discussed a while back, this one can be used to launch into a philosophical discussion.

At this stage you might be wondering “what’s he on about this time” so let me explain. There’s an old saying which goes something like “if you continue to do the same things you will get the same results”. There is one version attributed to Einstein which says “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” which really means the same thing.

Most people would agree that the world is far from perfect – from a political, economic, religious, and even scientific perspective – so to make things better surely we should be trying something new. In that case why do so many people want just “more of the same”?

In many cases it will be because of fear: many people are just scared of the unknown and don’t want to try anything new. In other cases it will be pure laziness where the person just doesn’t want to bother thinking about anything new. In others it will be because of self-interest: a few people gain a lot from the way the world works now even though it’s clearly not good for the majority. And finally (to be fair) there are people who genuinely think that the current system is genuinely the best we can have.

Of course maybe the status quo really is best, but how would we really know since nobody seems to be prepared to try anything different from the political and economic line which the majority of our leaders seem to follow?

For example, the way to get out of an economic slump which involves high unemployment, low wages, little spending, and insufficient control of corporations seems to be laying off workers, decreasing wages (in real terms), cutting spending, and loosening controls. Huh? We improve things ny making them worse? This is the current economic mainstream opinion? Really?

So let’s look at the reason people might follow such a seemingly ridiculous course. First, they are scared to try anything else in case it fails. Second, they just can’t be bothered thinking that much about the problem and looking for a more creative solution. Third, there are many people who do very well out of an economic depression. And finally, maybe this is the best solution.

I think the first and second reasons have some truth. Austerity is the simple solution and the obvious one, so it’s the safe approach for a government which is interested in just taking the safe route instead of really trying to make things better.

The third reason also (depressingly) has some truth. The more people out of work the easier it is for business to control the “labour market”. The lower wages are the more competitive the country is. The less the government spends the less it has to tax the rich. And the more functions the government hands on to big business the less responsibility it has for the ensuing mess.

It’s no accident that the most successful civilisations of the past (Egyptian, Roman, British, American, etc) have depended on slavery and repression for their economic success. I think many people understand this and the assurances that the pain of unemployment and low wages in the short term will result in some “golden age” in the future is a simple lie.

And there’s the fourth reason, of course. As I said above, it’s hard to see how making things worse could make them better. Who knows – I’m not an economist – maybe I’m just wrong about this. But I don’t think so. I think we should all think different.

By the way I wrote this just before the New Zealand government published its budget for the year so it will be interesting to see how the points in this post fit in with their future plans.

One more thing. I know “think different” appears to be grammatically incorrect. Not necessarily. Think of it more as “thinking about being different” instead of “thinking differently” and it makes more sense.

Schadenfreude

May 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I have some admiration for the philosophy behind libertarianism and I think it’s good to have every political perspective represented in a democracy, especially one which has proportional representation like New Zealand. But I still can’t help but feel a degree of satisfaction as I watch the Act Party self-destruct and sink without trace in the world of politics.

The word that describes it perfectly is “schadenfreude” (if you don’t know here’s the definition: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.) Yeah, I know, it sounds sort of mean, and I have already said above I have some admiration for their political perspective, but it’s still true.

Act deserves to die though. The party has been a joke for years. They campaigned for greater responsibility and delivered the opposite, they wanted to avoid internal power struggles and got the worst of any party, they criticised other parties for playing politics and did far worse themselves, they denounced ideological policies and are most ideological party in the country.

They have had no credibility for a long time and the party has been effectively dead for years and only survived by being a parasite on the National Party at the last election. They represent the worst of everything politics offers and unbelievably things just keep getting worse for them, hence the schadenfreude.

The latest debacle involves donations from a complete nut job, called Louis Crimp, from my old home town of Invercargill. I feel a bit sorry for this person actually because he is obviously suffering from some cognitive or social deficiency. His interview on TV last night was just bizarre.

But that’s the sort of person who supports a party like Act. Very few normal people would still want to have anything to do with Act, except when engaging in something like the corrupt and cynical political ploy which played out in Epsom at the last election.

Free speech is important but if you are going to make a point around controversial politics, especially involving race relations, it’s essential that you first get your facts right, and second don’t look like a rabid nutter! Unfortunately Crimp didn’t follow either of these guidelines.

If the government really spent half a billion dollars per year propping up the Maori language then I think that would be worth discussing. But getting the number wrong then ranting on about “savages” is not the way to win people over to your side of the debate. Quite the opposite is true.

So those of us who support a more moderate political position should thank Crimp for exposing what many Act supporters are really like. And yes, there are many more like him I’m sure. I know one Act supporter personally who would share a very similar position on Maori issues.

So not only is Act shooting itself in the foot now but its crazed supporters are also firing randomly and killing it off even more rapidly through “friendly fire”. Ah, the schadenfreude!

Miracle Cures

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

No one believes everything they are told and this especially applies to advertising. So there is a built-in understanding by both the advertisers and consumers that some claims should not be taken seriously. If even a small fraction of what advertising tells us was true the world would have to be a very different and bizarre place.

If I saw an advertisement telling me that drinking a particular brand of rum will transport me to a tropical island I would not take that ad as being lierally true. But if I saw an ad telling me that an airline can fly me to one I would take it literally.

So I wouldn’t drink the rum and expect to instantly find myself on an island but I would expect that if I boarded the plane I would get there. These are obvious extremes of advertising which are metaphorical at one extreme and literal at the other. Everyone understands this which is why the ad promising something impossible is allowed, but what about less clear examples?

There have been two cases recently (one here in New Zealand and one in the UK) where churches have got themselves into trouble over advertising that they can perform medical miracles, specifically that God can heal diseases which cannot be treated by conventional medicine.

Is this false advertising? If the people making the ad genuinely believe it is true then maybe it isn’t. If there is a certain amount of evidence indicating that prayer works (and there is) maybe it isn’t false. Wait, did I just say that there is evidence prayer works? Me, the atheist who likes to rant against and generally denigrate religion?

Yeah, sure. There is some evidence it works. There is some evidence homeopathy works, and water divining, and there is some evidence of alien abductions, and the Loch Ness monster, and fairies, and Santa Claus. But the real question should be: how much evidence is there and how good is it?

The answer for prayer is not very much, and rather poor. But you could say the same thing about some conventional drugs whose efficacy has later been found to be less than originally thought. So did the pharmaceutical company who advertised that drug indulge in false advertising too?

The thing that many people don’t seem to be able to get quite right is judging the balance of evidence. It’s too easy to pick one piece of evidence which fits what you want to believe and say that is proof. And it’s not just religious people who indulge in this behaviour – everyone does, including me (although I would like to think I am aware of the issue and deliberately try to avoid it).

Looking at the balance of evidence on the healing power of prayer I would have to say that it doesn’t work. There have been some studies showing positive results but there have been others showing negative results too (the people prayed for were actually sicker than those who weren’t).

In general studies involving phenomena which are either very weak or non-existent (healing prayer, homeopathy, monsters, mystic forces, etc) produce mixed results like this, plus the bigger and more tightly controlled the experiment is the more inconclusive the result is.

There are other effects worth considering though. They are the placebo effect and the benefits of having a positive outlook. If people are prayed for these effects might manifest themselves. Unfortunately there is the possible negative outcome too where people relying on alternative therapies might neglect potentially far more effective conventional ones.

So the whole issue is actually quite complex and it’s far from clear whether banning advertising of religious interventions is justified. After all, anyone who really takes those things seriously is likely to be a bit fantasy prone in the first place and might just as easily be susceptible to other poorly supported procedures such as natural and alternative remedies.

I have seen many dubious products advertised and sold in real pharmacies. These include herbal remedies, aromatherapy, acupressure, magnetic therapy, and many others. None of these (apart from the occasional herb which has some limited effect) are supported by any real evidence. I wonder how long it will be before the pharmacy starts offering expensive bottles of holy water as well?

Fallacies Revealed

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

This is my evaluation of the logical fallacies in the blog post I did yesterday. Many of these are open to interpretation so you might not totally agree with my analysis. Also in the small space available I haven’t had time to discuss the full detail of these fallacies. However I hope this makes my point.

So here’s the argument from yesterday with my explanation of the fallacies in square brackets [like this]. Remember that this is a fictitious example which I made up but it is based on real arguments I have heard from creationists. Also note that I personally do not believe any of this stuff!

Before you listen to an evolutionist you should know that science rejects God as the cause of life, so their opinion is hardly worth listening to. [poisoning the well: setting up the argument so that the opposition is already disadvantaged before his point is even considered] And remember that if we believe that evolution is true the next thing will be that we have to reject God and start worshipping Satan instead. [slippery slope: the first step doesn’t have to lead to the most extreme case, believing in evolution doesn’t make you a Satanist] Is that what we want as moral Christians? [wishful thinking: just because we want to believe something is true doesn’t mean it is; loaded question: the question is phrased in a way which only allows one answer]

As well as being immoral, evolution makes no sense. The Darwinists say that we evolved from monkeys [false premise: evolution does not say humans evolved from monkeys] by pure chance [false premise: natural selection is not driven by simple chance]. How can they believe that? If we evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys? [non sequitur: even if we did evolve from some monkeys the un-evolved monkeys could still exist] Plus it has been mathematically shown that the complexity of modern life cannot have arisen by chance. [straw man: changing the opposition’s argument so that it is easier to refute, evolution does not say complex life evolved by simple chance]

If you look at the theory of evolution (and it is just a theory) [ambiguity: the word “theory” can mean several things and the wrong one is deliberately chosen here] you will see that it is far from perfect and scientists are still debating it. [nirvana fallacy: the theory isn’t perfect but it is very good] So we cannot use it as a reasonable explanation of the origin of life. Yet despite all the problems with evolution Darwinists still criticise the Bible for errors they imagine are there. [tu quoque: avoiding a criticism of your argument by turning it back on the other person]

You will notice that very few evolutionists – even their high priest Richard Dawkins [tu quoque: trying to suggest science has a religious element by giving Dawkins a religious title; ad hominem: attacking the person instead of the argument] – try to debate against creationists which shows that they know that evolution can’t stand up to a fair comparison with creation. [argument ad nauseam: after hearing the same invalid argument too many times people stop trying to refute it]

When I went to a debate between a well known creationist and an evolutionist the evolutionist didn’t have many good answers to the creationists questions. He used a fallacy to defend his position which is obviously wrong. [fallacy fallacy: just because the evolutionist used a logical fallacy doesn’t mean he’s wrong]

But many well known scientific figures such as Isaac Newton have been Christians and their theories were shown to be true science. [genetic fallacy: the origin of the idea doesn’t prove its truth; appeal to authority: authority figures aren’t always right; composition/division fallacy: information sources can be right on some points and wrong on others] And even Einstein said that “God doesn’t play dice” so he obviously believes in a god [ambiguity: Einstein didn’t believe in a personal god, he used the word as a metaphor] who personally controls the universe. Why don’t other scientists accept what this great person said? [appeal to authority: even if Einstein had believed in a god his opinion would not have proved the idea]

I just cannot believe that this whole beautiful universe works the way scientists say. It makes so much more sense just to accept the fact that a god is responsible for all of this. Nothing else makes sense. [fallacy from personal incredulity: just because a person doesn’t understand or accept something doesn’t mean it’s not true]

So evolution makes no sense. What about Christianity? As you will see from my points below it is undeniably a better worldview…

Believing in a god is just a natural part of human nature [appeal to nature: what is natural isn’t necessarily true] and every culture in the world has a god belief. If there is no god where does this belief come from? And more people believe Christianity than any other religion. Why would they do that if it wasn’t real? [bandwagon, also known as appeal to popularity: a widely accepted idea isn’t necessarily true]

The Bible is the word of God so how can it possibly be untrue? [begging the question: the conclusion is contained in the initial premise – we have no proof that the Bible is the word of God] It’s illogical to reject it. The Bible is either true or it isn’t [black and white: the Bible contains some truth but a lot of myth as well] and many parts of the Bible have been shown to be true by archaeologists and historians so it’s obviously a book of fact, not fiction. [composition/division fallacy: parts of the Bible might be historical but many other parts aren’t]

Some people say that every religion has some element of truth and others say that they are all wrong. The reality is between those extremes: one religion is right and the rest are wrong. [middle ground fallacy: sometimes the extreme position is true] But Christianity isn’t just another religion and it needs to be treated differently because its teaching is from a higher plain of truth. [special pleading: one side of the argument demands special treatment, such as less scrutiny, than the other]

Christianity gives us eternal life which is better than a final death like the atheists believe in. [wishful thinking: immortality is a nice idea but that doesn’t make it true] You should be a Christian because you do want to be a good person, don’t you? [loaded question: everyone wants to be a good person but the question leads to a false conclusion based on this (that you need to be a Christian to be good)] Because they have no basis for their morality, the people who reject Christianity are immoral and their opinion cannot be trusted. [ad hominem: attacking the person; poisoning the well: trying to reject the opposition’s argument before it is even heard]

How can morality be good or even real if it comes from a species who evolved from monkeys? [false premise: humans didn’t evolve from monkeys; non sequitur: the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the initial statement because a species which evolved from monkeys could still be moral] Morality can only make sense if it was created by God. [genetic fallacy: the source of a phenomena shouldn’t be used to prove or disprove its truth]

Some people criticise Christianity because they think Christians have been responsible for atrocities in the past, but the people who burned witches, killed the Jews and Muslims in the Crusades, and started holy wars weren’t true Christians. [no true Scotsman: anything which doesn’t fit the argument is rejected as not being part of the group under discussion]

If you join Christianity you will have great friendship and happiness by participating in the church’s inspirational worship. [appeal to emotion: producing a positive emotion doesn’t imply truth]

We all know that God exists, so it’s up to atheists to show he doesn’t. [burden of proof: the person making the claim must provide the evidence of its accuracy] They just don’t seem to be able to do this. [ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance: something cannot be accepted just because the contrary argument cannot be completely proved]

If you’re still doubtful then explain these real events…

How is it that the Earth has just the right temperature, gravity, and many other things for human life to exist? [the Texas sharpshooter: taking the final result and fitting a cause to it after the fact] This seems to show that God created it that way. [confirmation bias: only believing the material which agrees with what you want to believe and ignoring the rest (there are many things about the universe which make it less suitable for life)]

In the last week three friends I know have had their children accepted for prestigious universities, [the gambler’s fallacy: a string of similar events does not prove a link] but I heard that an atheist in the neighbourhood has been sent to prison. [anecdotal: uncontrolled and unreliable examples of a phenomenon cannot be used as proof]

Finally, my neighbour had cancer and our church prayed for him and now he’s feeling better. [false cause, post hoc ergo propter hoc: a result which follows an event isn’t necessarily caused by that event; anecdotal: people recover from illness purely by chance] The doctor’s can’t explain how this happened.

So that’s it. Remember the fallacy fallacy: despite all of those fallacies being found the argument could still be true. But it seems unlikely!