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Nothing to Hide

July 30, 2013 Leave a comment

The issue of what rights our governments should have to spy on us seems to have arisen recently in many parts of the world. Major concerns have been brought forward regarding the NSA’s activities in the US, and the GCSB’s here in New Zealand, just to give two examples.

The usual excuse given for increasing surveillance is to make it easier to control serious crime and terrorist organisations. We should be concerned about terrorism and organised crime, but that concern should be proportional to the real threat. And we should also ask whether the increased abilities to spy on citizens will really be used for the reasons stated or whether there is another agenda which they are not telling us about.

Here in New Zealand our PM seems determined to push through new laws even though just about everybody disagrees with them, and he has only managed to get the majority required through the usual dirty back-room deals. Why would he be so determined to make these law changes when there’s clearly no good reason for them, and they are so unpopular?

I think behind the scenes the pressure is coming from the US government, and in turn they are being pressured by big business. It’s far more likely that these new laws will be used to spy in people like Kim Dotcom rather than real terrorists and criminals. So these laws seem to be designed to increase corporate power and decrease our personal freedom.

In internet discussion forums there is a rule called “Godwin’s Law” which states that the first person to use an analogy with Naziism or to make any mention of Hitler to support their point automatically loses the debate. In justifying political actions there should be a similar law which says that any mention of terrorism should automatically mean the person making that claim loses.

The fact is that terrorism isn’t a big threat and having governments spy on their own citizens is too high a price to pay for the meagre protection it would offer. After all, bypassing the attentions of these spy agencies isn’t too difficult if you know what you are doing and any competent terrorist should be able to avoid detection. So it will only be the naive and innocent people who will be the victims of this gross invasion of privacy.

So what about the argument that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear? Well that argument should perhaps be another one which means automatic disqualification from the debate because it’s so obviously fallacious. I would ask anyone who uses that argument to post all of their discussions, messages, and personal documents on-line for us all to see. After all, if they have nothing to hide, why not?

Everyone has something to hide. Sometimes what they want to hide is illegal, sometimes it is dangerous, sometimes it is politically contentious, sometimes it is just a bit embarrassing, but unless it involves clear and immediate harm to another person then it should stay private.

Clearly there is no distinct boundary between controversial and genuinely dangerous activities, so a case could maybe be made that it’s better to be safe and err on the side of more surveillance. But I don’t think so. I would genuinely rather have the occasional terrorist attack which bypassed the attention of the spy agencies (after all, that often happens anyway) than live in a repressive police state.

Just about everyone agrees that excessive government surveillance is a bad thing and we need to look at the issue carefully before proceeding. The law society agrees, most political parties agree, the previous head of our spy agency agrees, the majority of the public agree, and there have been significant protests against the new law. But our PM is going to push it through anyway and we should be very suspicious of that!

Inbred Retards

July 29, 2013 Leave a comment

The British royal family are a bit of a laugh. I mean, they cost the Brits (British people, aka Poms) a fortune and fullfil no practical purpose whatsoever, but they are certainly a source of amusement for many of us. The recent fuss surrounding the birth of some random baby to some random royal has attracted a certain amount of attention here in New Zealand because theoretically the British royal family is also ours, and the Queen is our head of state. Of course in reality, they are just a bunch on inbred retards on the other side of the world who could hardly be less relevant to real life here.

As well as being amusing the royal family is also somewhat offensive to many of us. It is offensive in the modern context for a person to be given so much (theoretical) power and wealth just because they happen to be born into a particular family. And remember that this particular family is only in power now because at some distant time in the past they killed off all of their competition.

As I said, there has been a small amount of fuss here, and there was 10 minutes of the most inane drivel at the start of TV3 news on the day the new royal baby was born. But it was worth it to see the Brits make idiots of themselves. Royalists are almost like a parody of themselves. My favourite was some pompous reporter from the Times asking: “I say, do you think you’ll call him George?” It sounded just so funny. Like something out of Monty Python!

To show the frivolous nature of the royal birth I should say that about the same amount of time was spent later in that news bulletin on the impending result of X-Factor New Zealand (pure, unadulterated drivel, and only a news story because it was free advertising for the program on that same channel later). Gee, must have been a slow news day!

Actually, the coverage of the birth has been quite excruciating in places. Trying to make a news story lasting several minutes out of some random hand movement with the claim that George (or whatever his name is) was waving to the crowd was also amusing. I wonder how these reporters feel wasting their time with this worthless nonsense when there is real news elsewhere in the world.

The political reaction has been interesting too. Our conservative prime minister has said that we will drop the Queen as head of state in the future but now is not the time. He’s probably right because, as embarrassing as it is to my fellow New Zealanders, the royal family does still enjoy quite a high level of support here.

And those politicians who would like to see us become a republic a bit more quickly, like Russel Norman of the Greens, have been quite gracious about the whole thing. Norman said that he wishes the family well as human beings but prefers not to attach any special significance beyond that (I have paraphrased his words here and hope that is a fair approximation).

But when National Radio interviewed some clown from the NZ Royalist Society (or some other similar organisation because I can’t remember the name exactly) he accused Norman of being one of the few people who are anti-royal. In fact he claimed (admittedly facetiously) that Norman would be the only non-Royalist in the country. Well I know plenty, including myself. Like most of the others, I have nothing against the royal family as people. I just refuse to give them any special status and I certainly refuse to acknowledge the Queen as our head of state.

Most countries have a celebrity class. It might be movie stars, rock bands, or business tycoons to some people. In many cases these are fairly silly too, but at least those people have gained their celebrity status through some sort of talent or effort on their own part and not simply because of which family they were born into (yeah, OK, there is Paris Hilton, I know).

So in some ways, as silly as some people’s adulation for movie stars is, at least it’s better than the pathetic vicarious joy the Brits (and some loyal subjects in the old empire) get from royalty. The way they admire such a bunch of inbred, retarded parasites must be just about the most amusing spectacle ever!

Random Religion Facts

July 25, 2013 2 comments

It has been a while since I did a “random facts” blog entry so I guess now is a good time for another. And why not go with one which is bound to be controversial, especially if my religious followers (OK, maybe an unfortunate word there) bother to read it. Let’s go with “Random Religion Facts”. What interesting little nuggets of wisdom are in my religion random facts file? Let’s have a look and see…

Fact 1: The Catholic Church made $97 billion in 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Commentary 1: While the WSJ has become a bit of a joke based on some of its material (on global warming for example) I think it can stil be trusted to get basic financial facts like this right. So I will assume the number is correct (the church does try to hide it where possible) and will supply some commentary.

In fact, considering the size of the church and the number of members it has I don’t think this is necessarily a huge number. Compare it with Apple’s latest quarterly revenue of $35 billion (giving about $140 billion for the year) to get some perspective. And there are over a billion Catholics in the world while estimates of Apple’s customer base are merely in the hundreds of millions range.

But despite these reservations the church still has a significant income and many people would quite rightly wonder whether it is using that in a genuinely productive way. Because the church’s finances are well hidden it is difficult to draw any exact conclusions but in general I would say it might be able to afford to do a little bit more helping those in need.

Fact 2: A poll of British Muslims showed 33% want to live under Sharia law and think apostates should be put to death, 68% think neighbours who insult Islam should be arrested, and 78% think the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice.

Commentary 2: I often hear very critical commentary from the far right on the dangers of Islam and generally think the risk is exaggerated. But if this poll is accurate then they have a very good point. Whatever the facts, I would prefer it if all religious extremism (Christian, Muslim, or whatever) was eliminated from the planet, but if these stats are accurate then I don’t think even the moderates should be tolerated.

If a third of any group think that people who disagree with them should be killed (and a much higher proportion want to suppress all criticism) then that group as a whole should be worried. If I belonged to a group (such as a political party or religion) where a significant part of the membership started believing something so abhorrent I would leave the group and work against it. That’s what all Muslims should do. Their belief system has become corrupt to its core. It’s time to abandon it.

Fact 3: Christianity grew only 5% in the US from the year 1990 to 2000, non-religion grew 110%, and Buddhism grew 170%.

Commentary 3: According to other stats I have heard this trend has continued and perhaps accelerated. Of course, in absolute numbers things aren’t quite so good (or bad for Christians) because the percentage of the US population which claims to be religious is very high, but the trend is clear: religion is on the way out.

It seems to be an inevitable overall trend that religion becomes less strong as a country matures. There are temporary reversals because as a belief system becomes threatened there is often a backlash by its adherents (for example, Muslim extremists in the Middle East, and the nutty Christian far right in the US). But as one generation is replaced by another the big trend cannot be reversed and less religiosity is inevitable.

Note that more traditional religions are often replaced by new-age belief systems such as (poorly defined) spirituality and Buddhism, but these seem to be less harmful than “real” religions.

Fact 4: 93% of scientists in The American National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic.

Commentary 4: There is a well established inverse relationship between education level and degree of religious belief. As people become more educated they naturally reject beliefs based on ignorance and superstition. Clearly there are exceptions, but the number cannot be denied. In a country where about 90% claim to be believers, when a well-educated group of senior scientists reverse that strong trend it really means something.

There is no doubt about it: most religious people are ignorant, and many are probably stupid as well. The only defence is a conspiracy theory where scientists are indoctrinated against religion by the evil scientific establishment. Well maybe the religious people should look at themselves and think about who is really doing the evil brain-washing!

Fact 5: Of the approximately 13 letters of Paul, historians agree that only 7 are authentic. The rest are forgeries.

Commentary 5: The Bible really is an atrocious source of historical fact. I’m not saying there is no real history there, but I am saying that fact and fiction are so mixed up that the whole book becomes almost useless.

Paul was one of the founders of the church and wrote a lot of material in the New Testament. But it turns out that about half of the material attributed to him is fake! Not only that, but Paul never even met Jesus and wrote all of his material second (or third or fourth) hand or (more likely) just made most of it up. It’s really just totally absurd to take any notice of this stuff at all.

But it goes away beyond just Paul’s writings, here are some more facts in my file on this subject. It is also agreed that the following are forgeries: 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, 1 Thessolonians. And according to the majority of historians, 1 Maccabees is only moderately reliable and 2 Maccabees is highly suspect (it’s really only religious propaganda). Plus, the Book Of Daniel is a forgery, it’s not from the 6th century BC but the 2nd, just to make it look like certain prophecies were fulfilled. And the last 12 verses of Mark are not original – they were added later to “square up” Mark with the later story as concocted by Matthew and Luke. And even that is just tip of the iceberg. To summarise (and perhaps be a bit unkind): the Bible is crap!

Fact 6: A recent Gallup poll in the US asked if people went to church in the last week. About 40% said yes but other surveys show (and academics confirm) that the reality is probably only 20%.

Commentary 6: I’m not suggesting that attending church regularly is necessary to being a genuinely religious person, but many denominations stress the importance of regular church attendance. Some of the more cynical amongst us might suggest that is so that the person can be subjected to their weekly dose of religious propaganda to reinforce their superstitious beliefs, or that it is just a way for the church to improve its finances, but that is simplistic and I’m sure there are far more genuine reasons as well.

It is interesting though, in a country which claims to be overwhelmingly religious, that less than half of those polled say they have been to church in the preceding week and only half of those actually have! Maybe religion isn’t as important as people like to think, but it’s necessary to keep up the pretence. Or maybe (to offer a less cynical alternative) people just engage in their religion without organised church meetings.

Those are some of the highlights from the first half of my religious facts file. Clearly I will need to do another blog entry to cover the rest at a later date. But what would be my conclusion from this information so far? How about this: that things aren’t as they seem, and that what people think is true in this area rarely is.

Tax is OK

July 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Unlike many people I don’t mind paying tax – I really don’t. But there are some things about the tax system which I do find quite offensive, and I can see why some people do object, although ironically usually for reasons quite different to mine.

We need a tax system because despite what libertarians and other extreme ideologs claim, the free market or private enterprise or whatever else you want to call their “religion” doesn’t always get the best results for society (in fact it rarely does).

For example, basic research with no obvious commercial outcome is not likely to be done by a private company. And good quality education is unlikely except for the small minority who can pay the huge fees demanded by private education organisations. And few private investors would take on massive projects which only have very long term benefits, such as a space program.

So if these points are true (and I think experience of the real world shows they are) we do need a tax system so we should be happy enough to participate in one. But I do have problems with the tax system in New Zealand (which I think is similar to most other countries). But what are these problems?

First, there is fairness. I would be happy to have a flat tax system where everyone would pay the same rate as long as everyone had a fair income. If everyone’s income started at a level which allowed them to live comfortably and if the very top earners didn’t receive grossly inflated amounts I would say sure, let’s all pay the same tax. But, of course, that’s not the way it is.

So we should have a tax system which helps level out the gross unfairness of what people are paid. Anyone who claims that people are paid what they are worth is just talking nonsense. The only justification for that belief I have ever heard is a sort of circular argument where they say a highly-paid person is worth what they are paid because they get paid what they are worth. Surely everyone would accept that many people make a huge contribution and are paid very little whereas others get paid a lot for doing either nothing or actually making a negative contribution.

So tax should be paid by those who can afford it. In most cases they will also be the ones who gain from how that tax is used: they use the highways and other infrastructure, they pay low wages which are topped-up by the government, they exploit the discoveries of science for their own commercial purposes. But even if they didn’t, I still think that making those who can afford it pay the most is a reasonable compromise in a cooperative society like ours.

So here’s my problem: companies like Apple and Google (two companies whose products I use, by the way) make huge profits and pay very little tax, but those who can least afford it seem to always have to pay more. My son delivers papers and makes about $2000 per year. He has just been presented with a tax bill of hundreds because his employer didn’t correctly calculate the tax after recent changes. And my daughter pays more tax because she does two badly paid jobs instead of one.

This is the sort of thing which does give tax a bad name. Of course, with a government like ours this type of policy shouldn’t be a surprise. They are intent on not only pushing wages and conditions down but making matters even worse for the poor by introducing higher taxes on them (despite their election promises). I’m afraid I can only label such policies as evil.

So that’s my first objection. My second is how taxes are spent. I’m sorry but I object to giving out tens of millions of dollars in corporate handouts to foreign companies while making life for citizens of our own country even more difficult.

And I don’t really want to have to pay taxes so that unemployed people can be given enough to survive but because of the incompetence of the government which most of my fellow citizens (but not myself, of course) voted for we have high unemployment, so I think we owe it to the less fortunate to help them. Sure, I would be happier if they had a job and I didn’t need to support them. But where are these jobs? They just don’t exist.

So tax itself isn’t bad, but the way tax is implemented can be, especially when it is controlled by a right-wing government like ours which uses tax as a weapon to disadvantage the poor and further increase the power and influence of the rich.

Tax is a tool and it needs to be used properly, but it rarely is.

Would You Press the Button?

July 16, 2013 12 comments

You are riding on a trolley which is moving quickly down a track and you have no brakes. In front of you the track splits to the left and right. On the left track, which is the direction you will take at the split, are five people who cannot get off the track. If you hit them they will die. On the right track is one person in a similar situation. By pressing a button you can switch your path from the left to the right and kill the one person instead of 5. Should you press the button?

Later that day you are riding your trolley again and find the brakes still don’t work. On the track in front of you (there is no split this time) are 5 people. If you hit them they will die. Luckily riding on the trolley with you is a fat friend. If you push him off the front of the trolley he will die but will stop the trolley and avoid the five on the track being hit. Should you push him?

After surviving the two incidents on the trolley you go to work. You are a surgeon and have 5 patients dying from various diseases. The only way to save them is with transplants. In the next room is a healthy person from whom you can harvest the 5 organs needed to save the other five. But you need to kill him to do this. Should you?

Driving home from work that night you come across a person injured in a motorbike accident. He is bleeding and needs to be taken to the hospital or he will die from blood loss. You have just bought a brand new Mercedes (you’re a rich surgeon, remember) and you know it will cost $500 to have the blood stains removed but you can’t see any other traffic on the road. Do you take him to the hospital?

Finally arriving home you relax to unwind after a hard day coping with making unusual moral decisions. But the phone rings. It is a charity wanting $500 to save the life of a child dying from starvation in Central Africa. Do you give them the money?

These are all examples of questions used by researchers trying to study the nature of human morality. The responses people give are quite consistent. Generally people will change the direction of the trolley to save 5 but kill 1. Most won’t push the fat person off the front to save 5 but kill 1. And few will think it’s OK to kill one person to save 5 with transplants. And almost everyone is prepared to spend $500 to repair the car after transporting the injured motorcyclist but most won’t donate $500 to save a starving African child.

Let’s look at these responses and see if they make sense.

In the first three cases the person has to make a conscious decision to kill one person to save 5. When the details are stripped away there is no significant difference between the three cases, but the vast majority of people will press the button but won’t push the fat person or harvest the organs of the patient. Why not?

In every case they must perform a deliberate action knowing fully that one person will die as a result but that 5 will be saved. What is the real difference in these cases? The main one seems to be the directness of the action and existing social norms. Pressing a button is a less direct way of killing someone than pushing a person off a trolley is. And harvesting organs of a living person is against all medical ethical rules despite the fact that there is no real difference between that and pushing the button.

In the second two cases a similar argument applies. In both of these situation spending $500 is required to save a person’s life, but only when the person is lying on the road, bleeding right in front of them will most people act. When the person to be saved lives thousands of miles away the general level of interest is much less.

Interestingly some research has indicated that rich people are often less generous in both cases: some wouldn’t even stop their cars, and many certainly wouldn’t even consider the donation. And groups who claim a greater level of morality are no more likely to actually make the donation than anyone else, although most would at least stop the car.

So what does this all mean?

I think this supports a social evolutionary explanation of the origin of moral behaviour. We would expect that people would gain most from helping their friends and family because their friends are most likely to help them in return, and their family share their genes.

If there was a more absolute, objective source of morality then surely there would be a more universal trend to apply it. After all, if helping other people is considered a moral act should it depend on how close that person is located to you? And if there is an absolute rule that you should not kill does that still apply if you kill one person by a deliberate action but by doing that fail to kill 5 through inaction?

If morality is dictated by a traditional source such as the Bible we would expect to see a major difference in the responses of believers and non-believers. But we don’t. Either morality is specified in these sources but ignored, or it is specified in a way very similar to what most people believe anyway, or non-believers (perhaps subconsciously) follow those rules without acknowledging it.

Of course my answer regarding religious morality would be that religious texts often reiterate the rules which we all know anyway, plus add a few more specific to the religion which are largely irrelevant to most people and in many cases run counter to normal moral beliefs (whatever that means) anyway.

For example, in the Ten Commandments there are various rules which are clearly religiously motivated and completely irrelevant to having a moral life. And the remainder are the sort of thing that any reasonable person would believe anyway. But even then they cannot be absolute. One of those commandments is “thou shalt not kill” yet many Christians will kill, either by joining the armed forces, or in the theoretical case of being on that out of control trolley!

Morality is nothing special. It is just a set of expedient guidelines which we have accumulated over the millennia living as a social species. And note that I said guidelines, not rules or laws. My recent theme continues: nothing should be absolute, and there is no good or bad. I think that makes the world a far more interesting place!

Note. I have discussed the trolley experiments before, and gave some of the statistics regarding the actual measured results in an entry titled “More Morality” back on 2007-11-27.

Nothing Wrong

July 15, 2013 Leave a comment

In a recent press conference in Russia Edward Snowden (the American whistleblower who leaked information about American spying activities and has been running from authorities since) told the world that he has done nothing wrong. And yet officials from the US, and a lot of the world’s governments, have refused to help him because they believe he has. So has he or has he not done anything wrong?

The problem with this question is that it has an implied initial assumption: that there is an absolute right or wrong. In reality right and wrong always depend on the person’s perspective and the exact details of the situation under consideration. So both Snowden and the US authorities pursuing him have no real justification in saying they are right.

Maybe the US has some technical legal entitlement to hold Snowden to account for his actions. And maybe Snowden can reasonably claim to have taken the most moral action according to what the majority of people would see as being the right thing in the circumstances. So they are both right and both wrong… according to how you interpret the facts and what you priorities might be.

Often it is assumed that breaking a law (as Snowden has allegedly done) automatically makes the person wrong, and in most cases this is true. Most laws are reasonable and genuinely designed to try to make society safer, but just assuming that what is legal is also right is a dangerous thing. Laws are ultimately created by politicians and few people have high regard for them, so why should we have high regard for the laws they create?

I’m not saying that we can ignore laws and still claim that have done the right thing, because as I said, most laws are fair. But every situation is different and I think there are situations where it is OK to break almost any law, even laws involving serious actions like murder and treason. And I think Snowden has done the right thing by (allegedly) breaking a law. And according to polls, the majority of people agree.

So if anyone makes a claim involving right or wrong, instead of just accepting the claim at face value we should look at the justification for that claim. And even if someone has broken a law we should never assume what they have done is wrong because there is always the question about whether the law itself is right.

Of course, there is a danger that unscrupulous people could use my cynicism about laws as an excuse to break them, simply for their own benefit. I don’t want anarchy, but I don’t want excessive state control through laws (either designed for that purpose or manipulated by those in power) either. I guess every example should be looked at on a case by case basis.

In the case of Snowden I think he really has done nothing wrong from my perspective (and, as I said above, the majority of people agree) but from the perspective of those in power who he has embarrassed, he of course has done wrong. But they’re wrong (according to me). As I said, it’s all relative!

They Got It Wrong

July 11, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s often amusing to look back at famous figures from the past (and sometimes the not too distant past) who have made what we now see as ridiculous claims about the future (their future, our past or present) but which have turned out to be badly wrong.

There are plenty of lists of these on the internet so I thought I might look at a few of them and figure out where they went wrong and how this might affect some of the predictions of the future we might have today.

I classified the errors into several categories so without further preamble, let’s get started…

Quote 1: “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” – Lord Kelvin (1883)

Quote 2: “I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky.” – Thomas Jefferson (1790s) after hearing reports of meteorites.

Quote 3: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” – Lord Kelvin [again], British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.

Quote 4: “Man will not fly for 50 years.” – Wilbur Wright, American aviation pioneer, to brother Orville, after a disappointing flying experiment, 1901 (their first successful flight was in 1903).

So what went wrong here? I think these people suffered from a case of excessive skepticism. As you might know from my blog, I class myself as a skeptic and it is good to exercise a certain amount of healthy doubt when it comes to many of the claims that people make, but obviously it can go too far!

That’s one type of error. What other types of mistakes have been made in the past?

Quote 5: “By 1985, machines will be capable of doing any work Man can do.” – Herbert A. Simon, of Carnegie Mellon University, considered to be a founder of the field of artificial intelligence, speaking in 1965.

Quote 6: “Before man reaches the Moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” – Arthur Summerfield (1959) U.S. Postmaster

Quote 7: “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” – Alex Lewyt (1955), president of Lewyt Corp Vacuum Company.

These are bit like the opposite of the first examples. These people aren’t skeptical enough and have excessive confidence in a particular new technology. If you look at the bigger picture it is possible to predict an overall rate of progress, but it’s much harder to say where that progress will be fastest.

Consider two technologies such as flying cars and computers. Both have been predicted to progress greatly but only one has. I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the internet, iPhones, and cheap but powerful computers 50 years ago but many people thought we would have flying cars. So where are they?

And technologies go through cycles of popularity too. For example, at one point nuclear power was seen as the solution to all the world’s problems so why would it not be used to power your vacuum cleaner? If you were president of a company which produced that particular item you would naturally want to get involved with the new technology. Just imagine how much suction power that baby would have!

Now for the most common type of error…

Quote 8: “But what… is it good for?” – IBM executive Robert Lloyd, speaking in 1968 microprocessor, the heart of today’s computers.

Quote 9: “Radio has no future.” – Lord Kelvin [yes, him again], 1897.

Quote 10: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – H. M. Warner (Warner Bros) talking about sound in movies.

Quote 11: “It would appear we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology.” – John von Neumann (1949), computer scientist.

Quote 12: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.” – Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 1911.

Quote 13: “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” – Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

Quote 14: “There will never be a bigger plane built.” – A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

Yes, this is the classic “failure of imagination”. People got locked into the present and couldn’t see that multiple changes – technological, scientific, and societal – would make the future unrecognisable and be different in qualitative ways as well as quantitative.

I have also come across a common attitude to change where defending the current technologies, which people are already comfortable with, means they have to reject the obvious advantages in what might reasonably be expected to be achieved in the future.

And notice that these people are not just prominent in their fields, they would often be thought of as the exact type of person who would be thinking of the future. I could possibly see why an executive (who is primarily interested in management and profit) would fail in these predictions but plenty of scientists and engineers (who presumably are striving to create advancements) make exactly the same error.

So what else goes wrong?

Quote 15: “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” – Simon Newcomb (1888), astronomer.

Quote 16: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” – Lord Kelvin [for the third time – a brilliant scientist but a lousy predictor of the future], 1900.

Quote 17: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell (1899), head of the US Patent Office.

I classify these as failures due to overconfidence. These people really thought that we had reached a point where all the important problems had been solved, where all the important discoveries had been made, or where everything of significance had already been invented.

Well let’s just pick on poor old Lord Kelvin again. He was suggesting that there would be no further major scientific discoveries, but the two most important modern theories (Relativity and Quantum Theory) were just a few years ahead. Both of these theories didn’t really do anything new, they just improved classical theories, so I guess there is at least some (but not much) justification in his claim that future science would be about improving the accuracy of what is already known.

So finally we come to my last category of errors…

Quote 18. “So many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” – Committee Investigating proposal for an Expedition by Christopher Columbus (1486).

Quote 19: “We will bury you.” – Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Premier, predicting Soviet communism will win over U.S. capitalism, 1958.

If you want to get something wrong probably the best way to achieve this is to start with a false belief or attachment to an idea. There are numerous examples of this in history and many really competent people have been victims.

The two examples above show this phenomenon. In the first a prediction is made that Columbus wouldn’t find any new lands because the person believes in the Biblical creation. In fact I would think that the true age of the world woud make this even less likely, but clarity of thought and religious belief don’t really belong together so I guess we should not expect this to make sense. In the second Krushchev makes a prognostication based on attachment to a political ideology rather than a rational analysis.

In reality even the most clear-sighted people cannot predict the future reliably. People tend to be optimistic regarding the short-term but pessimistic regarding longer time periods. Given this bias here are some of my predictions for the medium term future (about 50 to 100 years)…

Prediction 1. Computers. Practically everything, from light bulbs to cars, will have built-in microprocessors which exchange data on a global network, and that network will be wireless and ubiquitous. And people will “merge” with their digital devices and be able to interact through thought alone. Instant communications with any other person or information source will be possible.

Prediction 2. Energy. All forms of energy will be practically infinite and free. Electricity will power almost everything and nothing like fossil fuels will be in use except in rare and specialised cases.

Prediction 3. Medicine and Biology. Ageing and most disease will be preventable and people will only die from extremely severe diseases and accidents, and by choice. It will be possible to easily engineer completely new artificial species for specific purposes.

Prediction 4. Politics and Society. Our current economic and political systems will be replaced by new ones (based on the information and automation age rather than the industrial age as we are at present) which don’t require long work hours and most people will only “work” by choice. Machines will replace humans in all physical work and in most intellectual work as well.

Prediction 5. The Ultimate Prediction. However crazy any of what I have said above sounds there will be something totally unexpected which makes all of my predictions look rather tame!