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Smart or Good?

August 30, 2013 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a podcast where Australian educator and writer Michael Parker discussed his new book “Ethics 101: Conversations to Have with Your Kids”, also known as “Talk to your Kids: 109 Character-Building Conversations that Really Matter”. Naturally, given my casual interest in philosophy and ethics, I was intrigued and felt the need to comment here.

Philosophy is often viewed as an obscure and esoteric subject with no application to the real world. In fact that is the way I used to look at it too but more recently I have changed my mind. I think some of the various branches of philosophy are of the utmost importance and everyone should study a bit of philosophy during their education (OK, I admit I didn’t).

Maybe the most interesting and controversial part of philosophy is ethics. And that is what we need more of, because ethical behaviour is not only conspicuously absent in many parts of modern society, but unethical behaviour is actively encouraged in many. That, of course, assumes that there are ethical standards we can all agree on, and to complicate matters further, many would claim that the idea that absolute ethics can even exist is debatable.

But let’s move all of those minor issues aside and move on (which is something you can do in philosophy) and look at some of the issues Parker discusses in his book.

Is it better to be smart or good? This is one of the more basic questions he asks. Schools try to make kids smart but it makes little effort to make them good. And any efforts which do seem to encourage goodness tend to be limited to unthinking obedience to authority which in my opinion has little to do with genuine morality.

But in considering this question, clearly the answer is “both”. Being smart without being good is dangerous (many dictators, master criminals, and murderers are quite smart) but being good without being smart rarely leads to anything worthwhile. What’s the point of having the best intentions in the world if you don’t have the knowledge or intelligence to achieve them? So saying both is a bit of a cop out, I know, but at least it does emphasise the point that being ethical is important.

Many commentators think that people are basically more good today than they have been in the past. Parker believes this and the most famous proponent of the idea might be well known psychologist and author, Steven Pinker, who promotes it in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (which I really must read some day!)

Despite the rather lame beliefs of many people in society today the facts seem to show that successive generations are, in general, more moral (by any reasonable standards) than in the past. The objective evidence supports this: we have less crime, more racial and sexual equality, less slavery, less violence, fewer wars, and better treatment of animals now than ever before. Surely these are all good measurements of morality.

One interesting point here is that the increase in morality has happened simultaneously with a decrease in religiosity. It is difficult to prove any link or causality here but it is clear that morality has little to do with religion and a good case could be made to say that the less religious you are the more moral you are likely to be (with many exceptions).

Parker isn’t quite as positive about the demise of religion as I am. He see’s the decline of the authoritarian moral guidelines of religion to a more liberal and critical perspective to be a good thing, but thinks this swing has gone too far in the direction of excessive permissiveness and relativism. I think that there is merit in this view, but that seems to be the nature of society: it tends to swing from one extreme to another.

One subject we agree on is the immorality of many big businesses and financial markets. In those communities greedy accumulation of wealth is the only aim. The financial collapse was caused by the banking and financial sector doing the wrong thing simply because they could. They must have all known that what they did was both immoral and potentially disastrous yet they did it anyway because their whole culture is based on unethical principles.

Despite the excessive power of large corporations I think over the longer term business practices are improving. They probably aren’t as good now as they were 20 years ago but they are certainly a lot better than they were 200 years ago, and it is the sustained trend we should be looking at.

I did mean to mention some interesting ethical questions which can initiate interesting discussions here but seem to have got a bit hung up on the smart versus good thing. Maybe I’ll examine those questions in a future entry.

I will finish by saying that philosophical thought is an essential element to help answer our big questions, such as: how do we distribute wealth fairly, who has the right to initiate war and in what circumstances, how can we deal with global problems like climate change, and what rights do other species have, to name just a few. To solve these problems being smart is essential… but so is being good.

A Modest Proposal

August 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I think many people would agree with me when I say that the democratic system of government we have is far from perfect. Sure, I agree, it is probably much better than other systems from the past: monarchies, dictatorships, empires, fascist states, etc, but it could still be better.

What are the problems with the current system? Well there are parties which promise one thing and deliver another, which make policies based on the short term and aim at popularity in the next election while ignoring the bigger issues, and which force elected members to follow the party line rather than do what they really think is right.

Here’s some examples. First of promises not kept: New Zealand’s current government promised no tax increases and then promptly increased GST. That was an assurance made before an election which was promptly forgotten about once they were in power.

And for short term thinking: not taking climate change seriously and crippling our current climate change mitigation policies even when they were inadequate to begin with. That is a clear example of ignoring the long term problem for the purpose of trying to win the next election. And yes, I know that one small country can’t make any real difference, but that is another issue.

Finally for doing the right thing: I’m almost certain that there were people in the National Party who were very uncomfortable with the prime minister’s “spy law” which was recently passed. All it would have taken is one decent person in that party to vote against it and it would have failed. I’m not saying our surveillance laws don’t need changed, just that it has to be done properly.

You might say that all of these issues can be corrected when the public votes out the party which is guilty of “breaking the rules”. But that can take years, and a lot of damage can be done before that action can be taken. Also, governments tend to take more extreme actions shortly before they lose power so the possible consequences are made even worse.

I think a lot of the problems we have can be corrected by fixing the last issue. We need to allow elected MPs to vote against their party if they really need to. They need to be able to participate in “conscience votes” on every issue instead of just those few which the party leaders don’t care too much about. And just in passing: if MPs vote based on their conscience on these votes does that mean they ignore it for all the others? In many cases the answer must be yes.

In New Zealand we have two types of MPs: those who were elected by getting the most votes in their electorate, and those who are taken from a “list” to ensure the correct ratio of MPs in parliament reflects the total vote. So a politician can be in power because his electorate voted for him or because New Zealand as a whole likes his party.

So it seems to me that politicians who were voted for by their electorate owe it to them to work on their behalf, whereas those who were on the list should work for the party. At the moment every MP is basically forced to vote on party lines irrespective of which system they were voted in with.

The problem is that even if they say they won’t, the party hierarchy will try to punish anyone who doesn’t do what they are told to, so maybe votes should be anonymous. Except, of course, knowing how our representatives vote on different issues is an important democratic principle so I guess that won’t work either.

Another problem is that smaller parties tend to get all their elected representatives from the list (the Greens in New Zealand, for example) so that party would have a greater number of MPs it can control than one where most came from electorates.

So maybe the answer is that all electorate MPs should be independent. That way they won’t be under any party’s control, and people can still vote for a party using their second vote anyway. If they want to maintain the old party system just vote for a party, and if they want to just vote for a local representative just vote for that person.

It would mean a somewhat chaotic system of course, because there would almost certainly be no clear majority block of power. But I think that is a good thing. To get any new legislation through a lot of negotiation and compromise would be necessary. And I think when something was clearly the right thing to do there would be enough support to make it happen. And conversely when there was obviously some immoral political purpose behind a new law (such as our new spy law) getting support would be nearly impossible.

So I think this modest proposal (and it really is just a small adjustment to our current system) would solve a lot of the problems we have. Sure there would be times when nothing could be achieved but in situations where there is no clear consensus on an issue, maybe that’s a good thing.

Economic Growth

August 22, 2013 Leave a comment

There seems to have been a lot of bad news here recently, but there has been some which seems good as well, especially regarding some economic indicators. So is the current government doing a good job and helping to improve the economy as some people are suggesting?

Well yes, and no. There is no doubt that some of the government’s policies have helped the economy, at least as measured by certain crude economic indicators. But there are two questions we should be asking: first, would any reasonably competent government have achieved similar results; and second, do the results really mean anything and if they do are they worth the sacrifices made?

If you look back through various economic indicators in the past it’s often hard to tell whether National or Labour were in power at the time. In fact, according to the stats I have on overseas debt for the past 30 years Labour has actually done better, which is contrary to what many people might think. So can the government really claim a projected growth of 5% as a success or would that just have happened anyway as we inevitably bounce back from the global economic crisis?

And even if you do think government policy has resulted in increased growth and an improved economy, was it really worth it? We have serious environmental problems as a result of the dairy industry which has achieved a lot of economic success (almost none of which was the responsibility of this government I should add). Would we have been better to cut back a bit on dairy farmers’ profits and used some of that money to clean up the mess they make?

Wages and conditions for most people have fallen too. Far more people are doing temporary, and part-time work and most have less pay in real terms. Plus many costs are increasing much more quickly than rates of pay: electricity being the most obvious example (because of the way a previous National government created an “electricity market”). Is it OK to increase productivity by degrading working conditions?

We have lost a lot of jobs here recently, mainly because the government has refused to make any serious effort to stimulate employment. And no, that’s not because they don’t have the money to do it because they hand out tens of millions to prop up overseas corporations (for very little benefit) when they feel like it. Is it OK to cut benefit rates when in most cases the recipients of those benefits have been forced into unemployment through no fault of their own?

What I’m trying to say here is that achieving economic growth, in the simplistic sense this government promotes, isn’t difficult. If I took over running the country I could get significant growth by allowing dirty industries to exist without being too concerned about their effect on the environment, by forcing pay and conditions down so that companies have lower overheads, and by refusing to help the victims of my policies.

Actually that’s what I could do if I got control but why bother? It’s exactly what John Key and his fascist friends have done already so there’s no real need for me to be involved.

In fact the PM has gone one step further. He now his own private spy agency (run by an old friend) which he can use to snoop on anyone who disagrees with his ideas. Now that really is efficiency, National Party style!

Becoming economically efficient and achieving growth is easy and anyone could do it. Doing that while maintaining reasonable social and environmental standards is a lot harder, apparently much too hard for the current government anyway.

A Study in Media Training

August 20, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve got to hand it to the prime minister: on last Wednesday night he stomped all over John Campbell in the interview about the GCSB bill. He said exactly what he wanted to and gave Campbell no chance to ask the real questions we all want answered. It was a demonstration of his mastery of one of the worst aspects of politics: the use of misleading propaganda to push forward a particular ideology while refusing to discuss the real issues.

Clearly this was a setup where the PM had been thoroughly briefed on what to say by his expert spin doctors. He had refused to appear in the past but when he did appear he was determined to use the time for his own benefit. It was more like a prepared speech on subjects entirely of Key’s liking rather than an interview where he answered questions.

How often did he say something like “I’ll answer that in a minute” but didn’t? How often did he try to make the interviewer look like the bad guy for even suggesting the process could be corrupted? How often did he speak about a basically irrelevant topic then act offended when Campbell interrupted him?

I can imagine Key and his advisors spending hours going over strategies for avoiding the questions and advancing a distorted and misleading version of the facts. They clearly did a great job and in some ways I really must admire their skills.

Campbell did seem to be somewhat intimidated by Key. There is no way any other politician would have got away with what Key did. Maybe it’s because the PM had refused to appear for so long that Campbell wanted to be nice to him so that he might appear again in the future, or maybe it was just the skill Key demonstrated which left Campbell with no answers. As one commentator said: it was like a study in media training.

But although Key clearly won the debate, I don’t know how many people would have changed their minds as a result of this interview. That’s because most people can see when they are being conned even when the person conning them is immensely skilled.

Most commentary since the program has pointed out where facts were distorted, assumptions were made, and inconvenient details were ignored. In some ways I think people who oppose the government’s spy bill will be even more cautious of it now after seeing the tactics which are being used to defend it.

It’s also interesting to note that up until then the PM had arrogantly and quite insultingly claimed that New Zealanders didn’t care about who spied on them and would be more interested in the new fishing limits bill which seems to have been introduced as a sort of smokescreen for the more malicious stuff going on.

Just imagine what people are thinking: instead of the current 9 the government will let you catch 5 fish per day (or whatever it turns out to be) instead of the 3 they wanted to cut it to (while leaving the real source of problems, commercial fishing, the same). They are really listening to the public view aren’t they? Apparently the same doesn’t apply when it comes to slightly more important issues like spying on its citizens.

Surely the public can see through such obvious and cynical strategies? If they can’t then I guess they deserve to have Key and his fascist friends (yeah, hyperbole, I know) for another 3 (or will that be 4) years.

It seems that the PM must have changed his mind about the importance of the issue though, otherwise he wouldn’t have made such an effort to appear on Campbell Live (his office called TV3 to arrange his appearance) and inflict us all with his propaganda. I haven’t seen that much effort put into the fishing quota legislation.

The Campbell Live poll on the GCSB (spying) legislation gathered 53,000 votes in a week where the snapper quote poll got 30,000 participants in a much longer period. Maybe people do care. And if they care about the bill they also oppose it by 89% against just 11% supporting it.

I know that these are informal methods of judging public concern and wouldn’t pass any sort of scientific scrutiny but they are the only indicators we currently have.

It can be hard for the public to judge the future effects of a new law (although, as I said above, they can usually tell when they are being lied to) but the opinions of experts in law and surveillance should be taken seriously. So what do they think?

The Law Society made submissions against it. New Zealander of the Year, Dame Anne Salmond, is skeptical of it. The Human Rights Commission are concerned about it. So is the Privacy Commission. Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, says the GCSB spends most of its time spying for the US who see it as an outpost of the NSA in the South Pacific. Jane Kelsey reminds us that the Urewera case shows how easy it is to get an interception warrant and how police exceed the warrant powers.

But the best comment comes from Orcon founder, Seeby Woodhouse, who said the National Party mistook George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, for a guide book. Maybe John Key has been consulting with the “Ministry of Truth”!

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

August 15, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s an old saying which I think can be applied to many situations in modern life. It’s “don’t shoot the messenger” which (by my interpretation) means not to blame, harm, or harass the person who brings bad news.

There’s a tendency I have noticed in our modern society to make the person who brings the bad news to everyone’s attention the problem instead of admitting that the problem is the source of the bad news itself. Of course, there is a very simple explanation for this tendency: the people who break the bad news tend to be non-conformers and misfits and the people who are the real cause (and who do blame the messenger) are senior politicians, managers, and other “leaders”.

Some well-known messengers are currently prominent on the international scene: Julian Assange (and Wikileaks in general), Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning, but the phenomenon exists on a much smaller scale in everyday life as well.

It’s true that sometimes the messenger has to break the law to deliver the message, but surely if the message is important enough this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. No one should ever believe that every law should always be interpreted literally and without consideration for the individual circumstances of the case.

And breaking the law doesn’t seem to be a major concern for those ranked high enough in society. For example the GCSB (government “spy” bureau) here in New Zealand broke the law (there’s some debate over the technicalities but that’s the real effect) and there were no consequences at all. The government simply started the process of changing the laws so that what was illegal suddenly becomes legal. There was no trial, no consultation, no fair process at all. It just happened because it fit with current political expediency.

As I intimated above, I have seen a similar phenomenon on smaller scales in everyday life. My friend Fred (not his real name) who works in a similar area to me has reported being harassed by management for pointing out the inadequacies in the systems his organisation manages.

Everyone knows the system is poorly managed and performs badly but apparently it’s not OK to admit to that fact. Instead he has been asked to report the problems to people further up the hierarchy. Of course he says he has been doing this literally for years and nothing has happened because management really just don’t want to know. The whole process of reporting in this organisation is very top-down. But the people at the top are both ignorant and uncaring so nothing ever gets better.

So the answer to clear problems in the system is to persecute those who point them out rather than trying to fix them. It’s like Bradley Manning being persecuted for showing the world that American forces are killing innocent civilians and apparently enjoying the experience. Surely a sensible response here is to say “thanks for showing us that, we’ll fix that in future” rather than saying “don’t show people what we are really doing”.

Either the people at the top are incompetent and can’t fix the problems making disguising them their only option, or they are immoral and just don’t care but want to hide the fact that attitude. So which is it? Incompetence or Immorality? I’m sure it’s a bit of both.

It’s very obvious why the “powers” would love to shoot the messengers: they just don’t want the message to be revealed to the public. It’s a lot less clear why some in the public don’t fully support the messengers. I guess they just don’t want to know.

A Simple Test

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

I have spent many years debating with believers in various forms of pseudoscience including topics ranging from bigfoot to god, and from vaccine denial to UFOs. In most cases I have argued from a logical, scientific, and facts-based perspective, but I am now wondering whether that is such a good idea.

Anyone who is going to debate this way should realise that it’s no a fair competition. I don’t mean that it is unfair to my opposition, I mean it is unfair to me! I have to be honest and admit I could be wrong. I have to admit that science doesn’t have all the answers (far from it). And I have to admit that I don’t have absolute proof against my opponent’s ideas.

The reason I never reach the aspirational heights of 100% certainty is that I never can. But no person making a statement about the real world can ever be 100% certain. Of course this includes my opponents but they rarely admit that. How often have I heard phrases such as “I know with 100% certainty that God answers my prayers”. No, they don’t. And if they really thought about it they would realise they can never be certain about it.

So I am honest enough to say that I think evolution is 99% likely to be true or that global warming is 90% likely to be true (which are both imprecise statements, I know) but that honesty doesn’t generally extend to the other side.

So here’s the answer: don’t argue that way.

Most of my opponents argue from an emotional or “common sense” perspective so they are unlikely to be convinced by a scientific argument with all of its built-in uncertainties. But I need to adopt an intellectually honest approach of some sort, because that’s just the sort of person I am! And I think I have an answer which can be used against many of my opponents…

I recently listened to a podcast in the excellent “Skeptoid” series which discussed how no one has ever managed to claim any of the prizes for demonstrating paranormal abilities. Unsurprisingly the failed attempts are always explained with some post hoc reasoning but it’s clear enough: paranormal (or magical or supernatural or whatever similar term you prefer) abilities have never been demonstrated to work.

There are several prizes being offered around the world. The most famous is the “Million Dollar Challenge” from the James Randi Education Foundation in the US, but there are also prizes in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and many other countries, and at least one is even more than that offered by the JREF.

Many people who prefer to denigrate these prizes say that the bar is set too high, that the standard of testing is impossible considering the type of phenomenon being studied, and that the organisations administering the prizes have no intention of admitting that paranormal phenomena exist and therefore will never need to pay up.

But I don’t think that’s true. Here’s roughly how the test works for the JREF’s prize: the person with the abilities goes through an initial process to make sure they aren’t insane, dangerous etc; they present the JREF with their claim; a method of testing it with well defined outcomes is decided and agreed on by both parties and a document is signed agreeing on that; the participant is asked if they are happy with the conditions and how confident they are that they will win; then the test is done. And finally, in every case, the person who claims the special abilities fails.

In every case where a test is performed both the person claiming the abilities and the person running the test agree to a protocol. And in most cases the person being tested is confident they will be able to demonstrate the reality of the ability through that process. Yet they can’t.

There are a few possible objections to this methodology. First, it could be said that people with genuine gifts don’t want to cheapen them by using them to make money. Well in that case, if the person is so genuine about doing the right thing, they could give the money away to a charity. Isn’t that better than having a million sitting in the JREF’s bank account?

Another might be that these special abilities don’t ever show up during an experiment. Maybe they have some mystical energy field which is blocked by skeptical thought, for example. But it seems unlikely that everything from dowsing to faith healing is affected this way. A far simpler explanation is that the abilities simply don’t exist.

Finally it might be claimed that the people who are tested are the fakes and that the genuine cases are all filtered out by the selection process. But these tests have been going on for many years now and it seems unlikely that the selection process wouldn’t have made one error and let one person with a genuine ability through. Again, the most sensible conclusion is that paranormal phenomena just don’t exist.

So this is what I say to all psychics, faith healers, homeopaths, those who can speak to god, communicate with aliens, teleport, levitate, time travel, fly, see through walls, receive messages from the dead, or whatever else… Take the test. Prove your abilities. Win the million dollars. Spend it, give it to me (as a reward for giving you the idea), or give it to a good charity. Why wouldn’t you?

It’s informative to note that many celebrity psychics and other people who use their alleged abilities in high visibility areas (TV, live shows, etc) don’t seem to hesitate to make a lot of money from them, but they refuse to make a quick million by passing one of these tests. Maybe the “professionals” know their abilities aren’t real. Maybe they prefer to operate in an environment where their continued fakery isn’t as apparent.

But whatever the case I don’t think there is a good excuse which can be offered as a credible reason that these prizes still go unclaimed. There’s my skeptical evidence against the paranormal. Not a single scientific study cited. Not a single piece of advanced maths or physics required. Just a simple observation, and a hard one to refute!

No More Spin

August 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Before you read this be aware that it rapidly degenerates into an anti-corporate (specifically anti-Fonterra) rant (or tirade, if you prefer), so if you don’t appreciate entries written in my more “direct” style I warn you: stop now!

The thing about corporate spin is that almost no one takes it seriously – and that is good. In fact it is bad when people do take it seriously because then when it is found to be just blatant lies (as is almost inevitably true) there is a sense of outrage.

Let’s have a look at Fonterra’s page on “quality” for example. Here are some quotes…

Quote 1: “At Fonterra, quality is everyone’s responsibility. Every step of the way, from our farms to the market, we’re trusted by customers and consumers to bring them only the best.” Really? Are they serious? The only “quality” at Fonterra is the quality (or is that quantity) of their pathetic bureaucrats. And this word “trust”. A bit of irony here in light of the latest developments, don’t you think? They’re just another big, evil corporation intent on extracting maximum profit for minimum effort and accepting minimum responsibility for their disgraceful exploitation of the environment.

Quote 2: “Our reputation for quality is a competitive advantage. It’s an advantage we guard carefully, taking responsibility for our part in maintaining the trust of customers and consumers.” Is that right? Well they seem to have failed rather miserably on that front, I would say. You know what? I’m beginning to think this page may not be 100% accurate!

Quote 3: “We are committed to: Consistently satisfy and surpass customer and consumer expectations. Produce and supply safe quality foods. Fully comply with exporting and importing country requirements. Our Fonterra Quality System ensures that wherever we are located in the world, we have a clear, consistent process to deliver quality products and services to our customers.” Are you laughing yet? Or are you crying?

Quote 4: “The System applies to all Fonterra global operations including Fonterra owned and controlled business and joint ventures where we have management control. Nothing is left to chance.” Nothing is left to change, eh? Is that why a chance discovery by another lab was required to uncover their gross incompetence?

Quote 5: “Our people are critical in the delivery of high quality and safe products. They are our eyes, our ears and our conscience throughout the whole supply chain.” Oh I see, “our people” is it? Would that be the thousand useless bureaucrats sitting in corporate HQ or the useful staff who no longer have a job at Fonterra? And they dare to mention the word “conscience” here? Really? Come on, we all know that big business has no conscience.

Final quote: “Our highly trained team ensures we meet or exceed all the relevant quality, food safety and regulatory requirements.” Yeah, right!

How has this total failure to live up to their ostensible ideals happened? I’ll tell you. This is what almost inevitably happens when a large corporation becomes involved in an industry. They forget about why they are there and the maintenance of the bureaucracy becomes their primary activity. See my blog entry “The Iron Law” from 2013-07-02 for more details.

There’s a simple answer here: break up Fonterra into a series of smaller companies, fire every board member and senior manager and don’t replace most of them (they are all worse than useless), and put exceptionally strong controls on their operations, including controls which stop the dairy farmers themselves from destroying our environment.

This country has been living a lie for years now. We have exchanged the quality of our environment and the fairness of our society for increased profits for corporations. We are not clean, green, and natural. That is just more corporate spin, and no one should take it seriously.

As I finish this entry it suddenly sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe there was another example of this phenomenon? Would it be another large corporation whose web site promised great things but was totally unable to deliver on that promise? Yes, I’m talking about our old friend Talent2 and a very similar problem happened there: incompetent greedy management staff forgetting why they are there and making a total mess of everything. Have a look at “Corporate Newspeak” from 2013-03-21 for details.

It’s bad enough that we allow these corporations to operate in the way they do, but to really add insult to injury you just have to read their corporate spin! Why do they bother? Do they even believe this stuff themselves? Please – no more spin!