Archive for October, 2012

Let Them Go

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Wages and conditions for most people are deteriorating in real terms because we live in a time when there just isn’t enough money to allow higher pay and better conditions. Surely no one would deny this because the depressed state of the global economy is just too obvious to ignore. So surely no one should complain about their life getting harder. It’s just something we all have to endure to make things better again.

Well that’s the argument used by a lot of people anyway. It’s used by those who are making plenty despite the poor state of the economy and it’s used by those who are doing badly but have entered a state of learned helplessness and genuinely believe that austerity is the solution for everyone.

Outrageous salaries have always been common for the top executives in the private sector of course. Even gross incompetents have been paid a small fortune, often many times what people in apparently far more responsible positions like the prime minister get, for doing nothing of any real value to society. In fact it often seems that the worse you are the more you are likely to get. Shut down branches, lay off workers, reduce the quality of products and services while maintaining profits and you are virtually guaranteed a great salary.

Now the heads of government departments seem to have joined in with the corruption. Many of them get paid far more than senior political leaders and again there seems to be no relationship between a person’s morality and competence and their salary. The highest paid person in the public sector is the head of foreign affairs and trade, John Allan, who got up to $630,000 this year (a mere $40,000 more than last year.)

Allan is described this way on the MFAT web site: “…John is leading the Ministry through an unprecedented period of change. He has focused on developing a strong vision and direction for the Ministry that is designed to underpin New Zealand’s security and economic prosperity. A major programme called Ministry 20/20 is underway to create a more flexible and efficient organisation that is well placed to meet future requirements…” Of course this is just management speak for the following: “John is leading structural change to implement the government’s ideology, having senior staff in open revolt, creating a dysfunctional organisation, shedding jobs, and cutting costs.” Yeah that’s worth $630K!

The argument often heard is that we need to offer high pay to get good people. I disagree. We have to offer higher pay to get greedy people, and that certainly seems to have worked well. I’m not saying that CEOs should be paid the same as cleaners (I have nothing against cleaners, I’m just saying that they’re not paid very well) but I am saying that the right person will still want the job even if the salary isn’t 20 times more than what the cleaner gets.

Another argument I hear is that top people are worth the money they get because if they weren’t then the people paying them (the minister, board, shareholders, etc) wouldn’t be prepared to give them that much. But that’s really a circular argument: they get paid a lot because they’re worth it and they’re worth it because they get paid a lot. There’s never any real performance evaluation in place, at least nothing that has any real validity.

The Green Party has called for a review of salaries of public sector CEOs, but obviously the National government will have nothing to do with it. Firstly it is against their ideology to interfere in that way, and secondly these are the people they count on to do their dirty work. How often has a government minister refused to be held accountable for the latest disaster in their ministry and referred the matter to the CEO instead?

Tim Hazledine, a professor of economics at the University of Auckland, says the knows of no evidence supporting the claim that these salaries have created superior performance in the organisations involved. He said “I can’t yet prove that it hasn’t, but I can tell you there is no convincing scientific evidence at all that the relatively weak economic performance of New Zealand and other English-speaking countries over the past quarter century would have been even worse without the bloat in management bureaucracies and explosion in rates of top pay.”

New Zealand’s dairy industry has been a notable success in the last year or two, but more recently we have heard the news that returns are likely to be reduced in the next year or two and many farmers could be forced off the land. When things were going well the CEO of Fonterra (which is often credited with the success of dairy) Andrew Ferrier was paid $100,000 a week. In one year he got a pay increase of $1.5 million and he was paid over $8 million when he left!

But how much did he really contribute to the success of our dairy industry? Not much I suspect because I don’t see many people saying Fonterra is to blame for the approaching decrease in income. Oh no, that’s the world economy that caused that problem. Well just maybe it was the world economy which caused the good times too? Would it really have mattered if Ferrier was there or not? I suspect not. He’s really no better than a thief.

It’s time to reduce income disparity. I don’t mind certain people being paid more if they work long hours, have great responsibility, or work in a dangerous environment. But there needs to be some control over how high those salaries can get. And we shouldn’t use high salaries to attract people to an important position. People should be prepared to do the job for a fair salary and if they don’t like it we should just let them go.

Atlas Shrugged

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m currently reading the classic Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Actually I am listening to the audiobook version of it because I don’t have enough time to read over 1000 pages of the conventional book. If you don’t know, this book is a classic and often cited as a source of the modern libertarian political/economic viewpoint. You might know from previous blog entries that I aren’t a great fan of libertarianism so you might be wondering why would I choose to read this book.

Actually there are several answers to this question. First, you should understand your enemy and what better way to do that than read the text which a lot of their ideas originate in. Second, I agree with a significant part of libertarian thought so again I want to know more about one of its major sources. And finally, the book itself is a classic and is probably worth reading for its literary merits irrespective of the validity of the underlying philosophy.

As I said, the book is huge, about the same size as “War and Peace” and I am currently only about a third of the way through the total 55 hours of the audiobook, but I would like to report on my thoughts so far.

First, the story is well written and is in no way a chore to listen to it. It is the type of story which you want to return to and maybe that’s why Rand’s thoughts have had as much influence as they have in comparison to other philosophies which might not have been presented through a popular medium like a novel.

Secondly, the author is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person. Whether the book really counts as a treatise on economics, politics or philosophy is debatable, but it certainly has more deep meaning that most similar works. I do like the symbolism and metaphor in particular because it isn’t so obscure that you miss it. This is not the sort of book that you need a doctorate in English literature to appreciate!

Finally, in some ways I feel cheated. I feel cheated in the same way as I do when I watch a movie or read a book which is contrived in a way to move the plot in a particular direction, or elicit a particular false emotion response, or to artificially make a particular point.

I know that the characters in this book aren’t supposed to be realistic (at least according to many commentators). They are symbolic of various groups and worldviews in society and the characters are designed to present these ideas and allow them to interact. But I don’t think that is an excuse. Making the characters one dimensional and stereotyped just means the ideas they symbolise are similarly simplified. It allows Rand to present what is really a straw man argument against her opponents. It’s like the discussion isn’t being presented fairly and I think the book loses a lot of its value as a result.

Also the book was published over 50 years ago so there are some anachronisms which detract slightly from the experience. The word “gay” is used a lot for its original meaning (happy) but the reader can’t help but continually recall its modern meaning! There are other things too: smoking being portrayed as cool for example – or is this a libertarian point about freedom? Maybe.

Rand has offered a simplified version of the philosophy presented in the book like this…

Metaphysics: Objective Reality. Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Epistemology: Reason. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Ethics: Self-interest. Man is an end in himself. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

Politics: Capitalism. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

There’s a lot to like in this philosophy. In fact the first two points match my own ideas very closely. But I’m not so enthusiastic about the other two. I certainly totally disagree about laissez-faire capitalism being the ideal system, even though I’m sure Rand thinks that point naturally flows from the others.

On the first point. I know there is no way that we can prove that there is an underlying reality that we can perceive but I think it is pointless to live on the basis of anything else. If anyone out there thinks that reality depends on your perspective then step off the top floor of a tall building and see if you can overcome gravity with the power of positive thought!

On the second point. The problem here is defining the word “reason”, but if has a meaning like a combination of logic and empiricism then I am happy with that. At least we cannot establish facts through faith or through myth, that is certain.

The third point is a bit more difficult. I think Rand’s primary point here was anti-collectivist or anti-Communist rather than total adherence to individualism, greed, and self-interest. Or maybe not. By asking the reader to accept this point she makes her next point about capitalism so much easier to support. But few people would agree that it is highly moral to only care about yourself no matter how it affects others.

Finally there is the key point, the point which Rand is really all about and the one that her disciples love so much: that pure capitalism is the best system of economics. If total self-interest is the highest form of morality as she suggests them maybe she’s right. But even then I don’t think it works in practice and never will, because of one point. This idea is always supported through statement like this: “…pursuit of his own rational self-interest…” Note the use of the word “rational”. The problem is that people are not rational and probably never will be.

People seek short term benefits and ignore the long term. A company will pursue its own self interest by taking all the fish from the ocean even though they know the company will fail when there are no more fish. A company will burn dirty coal even though they know it will eventually cause serious harm to themselves through global warming. An individual will buy cigarettes even though the evidence overwhelmingly shows they are deadly.

Enlightened self interest might work in theory: the CEO of the fishing company should see that the fish will run out and limit what his company takes. But than a rival company will come in and take the fish instead because that is in their self-interest. The fact is that it has been well established in philosophy and psychology that individual competition often does not give the best result for anyone. Surely Rand, if she really was a philosopher, should have known this. Her philosophy doesn’t work in theory and judging by the way the world is currently being exploited now, it doesn’t work in practice either.

I think it’s interesting that the title of the book can be seen in two different ways depending on which meaning of the word “shrug” you use. The intended meaning was Atlas (from Greek mythology), the supporter of the whole Earth (symbolising Rand’s entrepreneur and industrialist heroes) shrugs so he is no longer supporting the world. But my interpretation would be this: he shrugs because he is uncertain. He sees this story as being of extremely doubtful truth and he really doesn’t care about the world.

Maybe Atlas was never really supporting the world at all. Maybe it supported him.

Spiritual Mumbo-Jumbo

October 26, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo around today, especially related to groups which no one wants to offend like indigenous cultures and traditional religious groups. But just about everyone is afflicted with this sort of nonsense to some extent. This was a point made in a recent opinion piece I read which compared Maori spiritual nonsense, such as the belief in taniwhas (Maori water monsters), with the equally unsubstantiated beliefs of the majority culture.

There are a lot of things which could be seen as mumbo-jumbo when they are analysed critically. New Zealand’s national anthem would be a good example. The word “God” appears no less than 11 times in the English version of this rather insipid example of a national song, and as far as I can tell the Maori version is perhaps even worse (the lyrics have only a superficial resemblance to the English version).

Compare this with the Australian anthem which has no references to god or any form of religion at all (although there was an attempt at one point in the past to insert a “Christian verse” which was wisely rejected). Also, I know that there have been some who have commented on the anthem as being “dull and unendearing to the Australian people” but it could be a lot worse. They could have one like ours!

So I some people might criticise me for not singing the Maori version at special events but I refuse to participate in the English version too, so my objection is more to the superstitious content and bland nature of the song rather than to political correctness. Yeah, actually, I can’t sing either, so it’s probably best for all concerned that I abstain from this practice anyway!

The anthem seems to consist of a series of requests to God to protect our country, make it more admired, more peaceful, shielded from potential enemies, more blessed, more full of love, etc, etc. It’s rather weak and pathetic really. Shouldn’t we all be aiming at doing that sort of thing ourselves instead of relying on a non-existent entity we inherited from the distant past?

And yes, few New Zealanders have much religious faith and I think very few would ever consider relying on a god to make the country better. The national anthem is a load of mumbo-jumbo, I don’t think there’s much doubt about that.

Most people avoid overt criticism of religion such as I often indulge in. Actually, I should be more accurate here: they avoid criticism of the dominant religion – in New Zealand’s case Christianity – but many enthusiastically criticise other, less favoured religions, with Islam usually at the top of the list.

Yes, some Muslim practices seem backward and absurd to us, but those people who attack Islam so willingly should be a bit more careful about their criticism. This is not because any religion deserves automatic respect or protection but because many of the people who point out the absurdities in one religion actively participate in, or at least respect, similar beliefs in another.

Certainly Christianity isn’t immune from belief in mumbo-jumbo and participation in ludicrous activities. Here’s a list of a few Catholic beliefs and practices which are supported to varying degrees by different types of Catholics: exorcism, self-flagellation, wearing the cilice, and transubstantiation. And don’t think this sort of thing is restricted to just one form of Christianity, crazy stuff like speaking in tongues is common in many fundamentalist sects.

I would suggest that any of these are as silly as what Muslims are criticised for. What is sillier: believing that 72 virgins await you in paradise or believing that during the Eucharist, the bread and the wine is changed into the body and the blood of Jesus?

Note that the problem of Islamic extremism and violence is a different issue. I fully agree with those who think that Islam is the biggest threat to world peace today, but in this blog entry I am restricting myself to discussing superstition rather than violence, although the two are often connected.

In an ideal world superstitions and other irrational beliefs wouldn’t give anybody special privileges. But if you are going to deny one group special treatment because they just happen to believe in something totally nonsensical then you should apply the same standards to everyone else. The conservative commentators who ridicule Maori belief in taniwhas would never apply the same level of criticism to the beliefs of mainstream Christianity.

They should be more consistent if they want to be taken seriously. But I suspect that their comments aren’t aimed at the sectors of society who think logically and deeply about the subject. They’re probably more aimed at those who would agree without realising how hypocritical they are being. And those people just love this sort of stuff!

Make PowerPoint Illegal

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s common for people to defend their profession: lawyers tell us they do a useful job and that they can be trusted, police say they are just enforcing the law and keeping us safe, even used car salesmen say they provide a service which we need. And politicians? Well I suppose some professions are just indefensible!

But what about IT (information technology or computer) experts? Many people are a bit distrustful of technology and the “geeks” who support it. Most don’t understand computer technology very well and can easily be persuaded to do the wrong thing by “experts”. And many of those experts don’t actually have a particularly high level of expertise, although it is usually higher than the average user. Plus there’s the all to common problem of IT professionals charging too much simply because the customer has no idea of what might be really involved in a project.

And then there’s the (to use the technical term) major cock-ups! A large proportion of the technical/professional disasters we have heard about in the news recently have been related to computer problems. Just here in New Zealand there is the Ministry of Social Development public computer kiosk security fiasco and the Ministry of Education payroll disaster. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day I come across examples of poorly designed and dysfunctional web sites, overpriced and poorly performing internet services, unnecessarily complex and unreliable software, and many other computer-related issues.

As an IT professional myself you might think I would defend my profession and I do to a certain extent. Many of the problems I know some of the details about aren’t really entirely the fault of the IT geeks who are implementing them. More often than not the problems arise because the technical expert isn’t listened to and is overridden by the client or by management, or the programmer isn’t given a proper specification for what is required to be done, or a senior management decision means that the system has to be implemented with serious and unnecessary compromises.

Interestingly, the compromises are often not related to cost. Sometimes the exact opposite is true in fact. Often management insist on using “industry standard” solutions based around Microsoft (or Oracle, or Cisco just as examples) technology which is not only slower and less secure than many alternatives, but is also a lot more expensive! Why do they do this? Because they are too ignorant to make real decisions based on the facts and instead resort to “best practice” which, as I have said on past occasions, is generally a formula for mediocrity at best and disaster at worst.

I know it is easy to be critical, and I’m sure people could find fault with my work if they looked hard enough, but the poor standards seem so unnecessary to me. I see web sites created at great cost by large teams of professionals which are far less flexible, reliable, easy to use, and elegant than stuff I have created as a single programmer. Of course we all know that sometimes a single person can do more than a team which might spend more time in meetings and creating business plans than actually creating the required solution.

Let me cite an example (I’m going to be deliberately vague here because obviously I can’t reveal any of the parties involved). There was a project I was involved with a few years back which the client initially contracted out to an IT company who put a team on to the task and created a web-based solution for about $40,000. I had quoted for about an eighth of this price. The company created the system which also required expensive hardware and hosting and it was used for a few months before it was realised it was unusable. So I was asked to look at the issue again. I ended up building something ten times better (in my opinion and according to feedback from users) at under a quarter the cost and it ran on a basic Mac which required no specialised hosting.

But why was the expensive option selected in the first place? The client threw away tens of thousands of dollars when they could have had the whole job done for a few thousand. No one could really say but I suspect it was because of the “suits”. I’m sure the representatives of the IT company came in wearing their expensive suits and gave a very professional (and meaningless) PowerPoint presentation before being awarded the contract. The client wouldn’t have known any better and many people would choose that over an individual enthusiast wearing an Apple t-shirt. But they would be wrong.

There are two types of IT professionals out there: those that work in IT because they love it and the pay is just an added bonus, and those who do it for the money and see computers as just a means to an end (making more money). Guess which I am and guess which the suits are. And guess which will almost always get the better result. But guess which usually gets the work!

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t adopt a more “professional” image and turn up at meetings in a fancy suit and with a meaningless PowerPoint presentation. Well it’s because I have too much self-respect to do that. And if the client can’t see through the fake professionalism of the others then I really don’t want them as a client anyway. Now you might be able to see why I am primarily an employee of a large organisation and only do part time private consulting! My personality is not exactly well suited to working in the business world – I’m just too honest.

So my solution for most of our IT problems, and for most of our other problems today, is this: first, get rid of all the managers; second, get rid of all the suits; and third, make PowerPoint illegal. Yeah, that should do it.

Artificial Controversies

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I listen to quite a lot of scientific podcasts and other material in the average week. I subscribe to podcasts from Nature, Guardian Science, and other fairly respectable sources. I often hear about trends and new research before they are well known to the general public and I have a fairly good idea of where the trends and consensuses are on various topics.

So it never ceases to amaze me when I hear what the average person with no interest in science actually thinks, especially on topics of a controversial nature. It’s like a totally different world when I compare what I have heard from the world’s leading researchers with what other people think is happening and who rely on totally different sources.

For example, I often see climate change deniers quoting phrases like “global warming theory is in serious doubt after new research” or “climate change alarmists were wrong” or “there has been no warming in last 10 years”. In many interviews with the world’s leading experts I never hear anything which could be remotely construed this way. As time goes by climate change becomes more certain, the evidence more incontrovertible, and the models more accurate. Where does this opposing view come from? Apparently they just make it up!

A similar thing happens in other fields where there is an opposing view such as evolution (of course I mean an opposing view from people who are ignorant of the subject or with a political or religious bias, not real researchers). I recently engaged in a debate with a creationist over whether new data from the ENCODE project (a public research consortium, the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements) disproves evolution. This person was not a nut, but he just totally cherry picked the evidence and warped it into his own world-view. He also refused to discuss the real issues and simply repeated his own warped opinions over and over.

When I hear biologists discuss evolution (even those involved with ENCODE) there isn’t the slightest hint that they think evolution theory is wrong, if anything their findings support evolution even more, but the subject isn’t even usually discussed because to the experts it just isn’t an issue any more: evolution is a fact.

But the public view is often quite different. Polls in the US indicate that only about half of the population there believe evolution, and a recent poll here in New Zealand showed less than half think that global warming is real and caused by humans. The global warming poll was a casual one run in the Herald newspaper, so it wasn’t scientifically accurate, but I think it gave a fair indication of the public view.

Here’s the result. The question was: “What’s your take on climate change?” (not a very precise question to be begin with, but let’s move on). “It’s a real problem and humans are the cause” got 49% support, “It’s a real problem but humans aren’t the cause” got 19% and “It’s a load of old cobblers” got 32%. So less than half gave the answer which is well supported by the science and a third disputed the reality of the phenomenon completely!

There is definitely controversy around climate change but it only takes two forms: first, there are people who for reasons of their religion, politics or ignorance reject it; and second there is a valid debate on the correct response to the problem. Actually, I should concede here that there is a third group: those who genuinely dispute the science and have some degree of expertise in the area, however this group is extremely small and often a hidden agenda is involved.

So there is no real scientific controversy here, just like there is none relating to evolution. The controversy is an artificial political one: it is scientific fact against political opinion. Note that I am talking about the basic idea of whether anthropogenic global warming is real, not what our response should be – I think there is still real debate around that and that is a real question with a significant political component (unlike the reality of the phenomenon which is – or should be – entirely scientific).

But this is a common problem in today’s world: subjects which belong in one domain are debated in another and this leads to total irrationality. For example, the scientific issue of evolution is real so instead of debating that fact religious people should get on to discussing how that affects their beliefs. Another example: global warming is a scientific reality so the next step is to discuss the political response to that reality. It is not for religion to dispute the science of evolution or for politics to do the same to global warming. At least it isn’t if we want a rational outcome.

But that does bring out a factor which I haven’t mentioned yet: many people don’t trust science. It’s odd because those same individuals use the products of science, like the internet, as a medium for saying why they distrust it. Or they make use of the advantages we have gained from science, such as modern medicine, to extend their lives while debating evolution which is the most important theory underlying biology: the science medicine is based on.

It’s bizarre. It would be like me creating a brilliant argument against the existence of God and then distributing it on church noticeboards (and that would be after I survived a nasty disease by praying for a cure). Still, people are often very poor at recognising the irony inherent in their positions. That’s one of the most amusing things about engaging them in debate!

Faith No More

October 17, 2012 4 comments

I recently listened to an interview with Phil Zuckerman, who is the professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He has recently written a book called “Faith No More” criticising faith in religion, a theme which I have taken up here in this blog on more than one occasion!

So what were his points? Mostly stuff I have covered in the past, but there were a few new arguments which I haven’t really mentioned before. So what follows is a list of his points and my commentary on them.

How many non-religious people are there in the world? A conservative estimate would be 500-750 million but there are many more who label themselves as belonging to a religion in surveys and their national census, but don’t participate in religion in any way and are essentially atheists or at least agnostics (or maybe more accurately just don’t care).

So without doubt there is an increasing number of secular people, but there are more fundamentalists too. What is going on here? It seems that as religion is increasingly threatened by science and secularism some elements become more hardened against that change and become even more irrational and dedicated to their belief system.

Fundamentalists tend to appear in socially stressed areas, such as the Middle East (the home of Islamic crazies) and the Southern USA (the home of Christian nutters). Please note: the terms “crazies” and “nutters” are mine, not Zuckerman’s! He was a bit more diplomatic, but that’s essentially what he meant.

Most strongly religious people (that’s the more diplomatic term) are born into a belief system and the birth rate of a population tends to be inversely proportional to its degree of belief in rationalism. It’s no accident that so many religions discourage birth control. That’s a primary mechanism the religion sustains itself through. Religion is a meme – like a virus of the mind – and successful religions have evolved mechanisms to create more hosts for infection. Having a higher birth rate is a very obvious one and I think that is undeniable especially when considering groups such as Catholics and Muslims.

But despite all of the obstacles there are more people than ever escaping from the belief system of their birth. Zuckerman has examined the mechanisms underlying these changes but there is no one reason which is easily identifiable.

For many people religion just stopped making sense. They noticed the inconsistencies and lack of logic in almost every religion. They suffered the psychological pain and loss as a result of unanswered prayers. They became more educated in the philosophy of theology. They were influenced by their friends who might have been non-religious yet were happier and more balanced than most believers. They realised that their own morality was better than that offered by their religion, because they realised religious rules are based on punishment and reward rather than being primarily based on care for others.

In most cases the conversion process was slow. It typically took 3 to 5 years but it happened even if the person involved didn’t really want it to.

There are several correlations between a person’s religious belief and other factors. There is a strong correlation with lack of religion and bright, intelligent, knowledgable people. Yes, the smarter you are the less likely you are to be religious. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bright people who are believers and stupid people who are non-believers but it does mean there is a strong trend. Naturally atheists like myself love quoting this correlation!

Interestingly in every study, irrespective of country, race, education, or other factors, men tend to be more secular than women. No one seems to know why. Of course it is easy to offer some stereotyped view like women being more emotional and men more rational but I would hate to even suggest that as a possibility!

Secularism isn’t just another religion as some believers like to say. There is a genuine difference, apart from those mentioned above (intelligence, etc). Non-believers really are more open to ideas and less restrained by a single belief. Studies show that religious people usually limit their kids to experiencing their own religion, but seculars tend to say “try them all” (or none).

It’s not as simple as it would appear up to this point though. Religion offers some benefits such as the increased charitableness of church-goers and the increased sense of community which often results. These are good outcomes even if they are for the wrong reasons.

But look at the big picture. Compare secular and religious countries. The places which are less religious are happier, they have the lowest crime rates, the best health care, the best child care, and are the most democratic and stable (according to a Gregory S Paul study).

The conclusion is clear: we need faith no more.

Little Questions Wrap Up

October 15, 2012 1 comment

It’s time to wrap up my discussion of simple questions with deep, complex, and meaningful answers. I will briefly cover the other little questions I listed over a month ago now. So far I have discussed these: Why is the Moon round? Why is the sky blue during the day? Why is the sky dark at night? and What is a star? These revealed some quite insightful facts about the universe we live in so let’s get started with the rest.

The first question is “Why is grass green?” The question could extend to other plants as well because most leaves are also green.

Grass is green because grass is full of chlorophyll which is green. Chlorophyll is a chemical which allows the plant to capture light from the Sun and store that as energy. Green things are green because they absorb all the light which isn’t green and reflect the green light which we see.

But the Sun generates a lot of energy in the green part of the spectrum so you might think that chlorophyll should be black because it would then absorb all the light that hits it and it would be able to create more energy for the plant. Why isn’t it black?

Evolution does not always produce the best possible outcome. It works with what it has and all complex organisms were originally much simpler and almost certainly adapted to quite different conditions. In fact chloroplasts (the little organelles in a plant cell which contain chlorophyll) were originally completely independent bacteria which invaded the plant cell. The same thing happened with mitochondria, the energy production organelles in animals.

So the fact that grass is green tells us a lot about how evolution works. The way that plants and animals produce energy (using what were originally bacteria which they assimilated into their own metabolism) is also strong evidence supporting evolution (as if it really needed any more).

The next question is “What is a dream?” I’ll give you my understanding of the current consensus on this. The brain works when the individual is asleep organising memories and performing numerous other tasks. Dreams are subconscious thoughts on issues which have made some impression on the person during the day: things which they might be concerned, happy, or worried about, things they were surprised about, etc.

Dreams are not premonitions of the future (at least they are nothing more than guesses), messages from the dead or living, or anything else ultimately mysterious. Sometimes people think a dream has given them some special insight and maybe it has, but these situations are the result of confirmation bias. People have many dreams and we would expect by chance that one might occasionally provide some unexplained information. People often remember the time when one dream was accurate but forget the 100 times that other dreams were wrong.

Attributing special abilities to dreams is sometimes an example of when the wrong conclusion is reached because of a failure to look at all the evidence – a far too common occurrence, I’m afraid!

Question three is “How deep can you dig a hole?” I’m not sure if I can extract a vast amount of unexpected insight from this but it’s still interesting.

The Russians decided to dig the deepest hole they could in the 1970s. That hole reached a depth of 12,262 metres (40,230 ft) in 1989 and that is the deepest hole so far completed.

That’s not actually very deep considering that the diameter of the Earth is around 12,800 kilometers. It represents 0.2% of the total depth theoretically possible (reaching the center of the Earth’s core) but it is eight times deeper than the deepest natural “hole” – a cave system in France.

So how about this one: “When is the world’s birthday?” The Earth took many years to form and there was no clear point where you could say that formation was complete, so this question cannot really be answered. There is a consensus on the age of the Earth though: 4.54 billion years, and this is known to an accuracy of about 1% which is quite an impressive achievement when you think about it.

Perhaps for an object which exists as long as a planet a better question would be when it was born in terms of orbits around its galaxy rather than days. That makes the Earth about 19 orbits old but I’m still not quite sure how I would specify the equivalent of its birthday.

Maybe the conclusion from this is that most humans think on such small time scales that even the questions they have don’t always work within the longer timescales of the universe as a whole.

So here’s another question: “Why do we have toes?” The idea that only the big toe is necessary for balance and the others are basically irrelevant is quite common but I have never found a definitive source confirming that. This one might get back to evolution again like the chlorophyll question above. Maybe we have toes because our distant ancestors did.

Our ancestors were arboreal and toes were useful for gripping tree branches. We don’t use them for that any more but they are still there. That’s the way evolution works.

Moving on we have “How much does the sky weigh?” I will assume by “sky” here we mean the atmosphere. It’s actually not that difficult to calculate this number from a couple of other quite well known numbers.

If we know the pressure of the atmosphere on a particular area that tells us how much all the air above that area weighs. This number is about 14 pounds per square inch (sorry about the ancient units which are the only ones I can remember!) So for every square inch of Earth there is 14 pounds of air above it.

The Earth’s diameter is 12,756 kilometers (through the equator, and 12,713 through the poles – more numbers I just remembered) so let’s say 12,730 as an average. The formula for the total area is 4 times pi times the radius squared. Pi is 3.14159265358979323 (yes, another number I remember) and the radius of the Earth (in inches) is about 250 million. So the total area in square inches is 800 000 000 000 000 000 square inches.

Each square inch has 14 pounds of sky above it so the atmosphere weighs 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 (10 million trillion) pounds. And yes, I did use a calculator and checked my answer with some web sites. It seems to agree so we’re either all right or all wrong!

Notice that I didn’t need to know how deep the atmosphere is, or what it is made of, or how it changes density as its thickness increases to get this answer. However those who have been paying attention will realise this number is too high because it assumes the pressure is the same everywhere. The Earth isn’t flat and mountain’s heights are significant compared with the thickness of the atmosphere. However I will leave a better estimate for another day… maybe.

Let’s get into something a bit more obscure: “What is time?” Well I know but I can’t really tell you! It’s one of the dimensions of space-time. It’s something which prevents everything from happening at the same time (are both of those a bit circular?) Maybe it’s something we perceive which doesn’t really exist. Does the past exist? Why can we only move forward in time? How is time different from other dimensions like length or width? Why are there 3 space dimensions but only one time?

I know time has something to do with entropy too. That might explain why it only goes one way. But really, as you can probably tell, I can’t describe time in any meaningful way and I’m fairly sure no one else can either without using a mathematical definition instead.

So how about something simpler: “Why is water wet?” Is it because it’s a liquid? I don’t think so because some liquids aren’t wet. Dip your finger into some mercury and it doesn’t get wet. It does depend a bit on what you mean by “wet”, of course. I think wetness involves the liquid clinging to the thing which is wet – that’s why I said mercury isn’t wet – it just falls off.

So maybe water (and many other things) are wet because they are liquids which cling to things, sometimes because of the polarity of their molecules but not always. But the problem here is more defining the word (wet) rather than coming up with a good answer, and that is often the case.

And now the final question: “Why did God let my kitten die?” I interpret this as being a specific example of the old problem of evil, a classic and long-lasting puzzle in the philosophy of religion. Most religions claim their god is powerful and perceptive, or even omnipotent and omniscient. They also tend to claim he is good. If he is all three of these things why do bad things (like the death of kittens) happen?

If God knows the kitten will die (he’s omniscient) and can do something about it (he’s omnipotent) then surely he can’t be good if he allows it to happen, can he?

There are a number of possible answers here. The first is that God doesn’t exist. Clearly that is the explanation I would prefer because there is no evidence a god does exist and what is the point in presenting questions regarding his presumed attributes? It’s crazy. It’s like asking: what species is the Loch Ness monster, or which planet do UFOs come from, or what is the name of the fairy at the bottom of my garden.

There are other possibilities though. Maybe god isn’t exactly like he’s presented. Maybe there are things he doesn’t know about, or things he can’t help with, or maybe he just doesn’t care. Maybe he isn’t omnipotent, omniscient and good at all.

Needless to say, neither of those explanations are popular with religious people. They tend to offer this one instead: god is all three of those things but his actions (or lack of actions) work towards a greater purpose which we can’t understand. It may not seem that what he does or doesn’t do is good but that’s just because we have insufficient understanding to see the big picture.

Naturally this sounds like a major cop-out. But if you think about it we would be naive to think we could understand the actions of an entity which created and controls the whole universe. The problem that arises from this idea is that it then becomes pointless to try to understand God in any way. We can’t make up stories about him (like in the Bible) or worship him, or ask him for help, or pretend we know anything about him at all. He is beyond our understanding.

Again, I don’t think this is really the answer believers have in mind, but it is the natural consequence of their initial contention about understanding. It’s just too convenient to say we understand God when it suits us but can’t when the real world doesn’t fit into our preconceptions.

So yeah, that is a big question. For the average child it’s probably easier just to make up some empty platitude like “god has taken your kitten to heaven with him”. But if you have a particularly gifted child by all means use the question as a starting point to enter into a extensive philosophical dissertation. That’s much more fun!