Archive for October, 2013

Who Wears the White Hat?

October 29, 2013 Leave a comment

In the old cowboy movies the good guys usually wore a white hat and the villains a black one. Of course there were exceptions and the best characters (in all genres of fiction) are those whose personalities have both good and bad elements. But the metaphor of the white hat being the marker of the good guy has remained and we naturally wonder who wears the white hat in the area of international politics today.

Many people would say the USA is supposed to be that character. In fact they are supposedly the sheriff who has both the power and moral right to hold the rest of the world to his own high standards of justice and fairness. By now most people will be detecting a small problem with this analogy, that being that the American government is as bad as many of the groups and countries it supposedly holds to account and is a lot worse than most.

It’s as if the sheriff holds up a stage coach, rustles a few head of cattle, and then goes and arrests the town drunk for causing a minor disturbance in the main street. And after all that he still expects to be respected and admired by those he intimidates.

And he has a series of informants and deputies but doesn’t really trust them so he has someone tapping the telegraph line to make sure they’re not plotting anything he would disapprove of.

OK, I’ve gone this far so let’s complete the analogy. The sheriff is paid by the big land-owners and banks so he spends most of his time looking after their interests rather than honestly enforcing the law.

It’s not that the sheriff is necessarily evil himself, it’s more that it’s just what he is expected to do in that role. Many of the problems have been inherited from the past and it’s just too hard to fix them, no matter how good his intentions.

Of course there’s only a certain length of time that a corrupt sheriff can maintain his power because eventually everyone else will see what is really happening and have him ridden out of town on a rail (read the entry for “riding the rail” in Wikipedia for the history of this phrase).

So enough of the metaphors, let’s look at the facts…

The US does spy on personal communications belonging to both its enemies and friends (German Chancellor Angela Merkel for example) at all levels. If they think this is justified then why do they try so hard to hide it, why do they deny it when they are caught, and why do they promise to stop once they are discovered? Maybe there is a small chance that this activity might prevent some terrorist attacks but most people think it is far more likely that the primary use of the information is to support US corporations, which makes it nothing more than state-sponsored industrial espionage.

The US does murder more innocent civilians than almost any other country (the exact numbers depend on your sources but the civilian deaths in Iraq were well over 100,000). Not only is the mass murder of innocent people accepted by the government but a lot of it is done in the most cowardly, despicable ways including drone attacks and aerial bombing. If this is just an inevitable consequence of war then why start the wars in the first place? Yes, the US deliberately starts wars even when there is no legal justification.

American corporations exploit and pollute the environment (depending on the source the US is either number 1 or 2 in amount of pollution produced), and make use of sub-standard employment conditions all over the world, while leaving people in their own country without work. The old excuse that their only commitment is to maximise the payment to their shareholders just isn’t good enough. When you’re the leading world economic superpower there is no excuse for this sort of shoddy behaviour.

I could go on. America has one of the most undemocratic political systems in the western world (the two main parties are both heavily reliant on corporate sponsorship), one of the greatest disparities between rich and poor, and a general disregard for any greater moral principles.

But I do need to offer some balance here, because it’s not that the US is all bad…

First, every large empire in the past has done exactly the same thing. The Roman and British empires rose to world domination, then exploited that power, then gradually faded away. If the American empire wasn’t doing this now there’s a good chance someone else would, and they could be a lot worse.

And there’s a lot of good which comes from America as well as the bad. It is still the world leader in science and technology and for that it’s almost possible to excuse the bad political and business practices.

So despite all of the crimes the sheriff tries to get away with when he thinks no one else is watching we do need to say that he isn’t just a simple black hat style villain. Maybe his hat should be grey, or black on one side and white on the other, because he is both good and bad. The important thing is to realise that and understand that the world isn’t a Hollywood movie set. In the real world there are no goodies and baddies, just characters who are a bit of both.


October 26, 2013 11 comments

In the comments for a recent blog post I repeated one of my favourite quotes by the famous enlightenment philosopher Voltaire who said “Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities” and my opponent agreed. Of course, I’m sure he only thinks that while most other people’s religious views are absurd, his (by some unknown process) are immune and make perfect sense.

So I guess the challenge is to show that Christianity is absurd, surely one of the simplest tasks I have ever set myself! But is it really? The problem is that Christianity doesn’t really exist. What does exist are various sects which have split off from the original belief system (the first major split was just a few hundred years after the founding of the church) and now number about 38,000.

That in itself is absurd because many of these sects show massive variations in their beliefs. Some believe in creation, some in evolution, some both. Some believe Jesus was some sort of supernatural god, some think he was a manifestation of God, some think he was just a man. Some interpret every word of the Old Testament literally, some basically ignore it.

So when preparing a case against Christianity it’s just too easy for my opponent to claim that I am disproving a version of the religion which he also disagrees with, but which isn’t “real” Christianity. And naturally, many people will never explicitly tell you what they believe because that would mean you can disprove that belief.

So I guess I just have to take a few of the more important and widely quoted Christian beliefs and show they are absurd. That’s not perfect and those who insist on denying the obvious will still no doubt still find some way to escape but it’s probably the best approach I have available.

So let’s start at the beginning. Genesis is absurd. Anyone with the smallest amount of intellectual honesty will agree that it simply cannot be literally true. Every branch of science contradicts it and anyone who still believes in creation (no doubt while still accepting the benefits of the science which disproves it) is showing absurd ignorance.

Some people will say it is metaphorical. OK, so what is the deeper meaning? There isn’t one because it was clearly meant to be the best explanation of the origin of the universe, Earth, and life that a primitive desert nomad tribe could invent at the time. To pretend that such a mechanistic story is a metaphor is absurd.

Most of the other origin stories in the Old Testament are also absurd. That applies to the Exodus and the Flood which clearly didn’t happen. I guess there might be some sort of case to say that these are metaphorical but there are two problems with that.

First, if they are metaphors how do we know? Maybe every story is a metaphor so is nothing in the Bible true? There would be absolutely no way to know. How absurd is that?

Second, what is the metaphorical message here? For the Flood it seems to be that if some people upset God he will kill practically everyone, plus almost every animal and plant as well. So the message is that God is a monstrous, evil tyrant? Somehow I don’t think that’s what most Christians want to believe.

So let’s move on to the more central message of Christianity from the New Testament. Surprisingly, in some ways this is even more absurd.

Maybe the basic belief of modern Christianity (and this is debatable for the reasons I gave above) is portrayed in that most famous Bible verse, John 3:16, which is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (New International Version).

So what is this all about? Well here’s my interpretation (please correct me if I’m wrong). God saw that there were problems on Earth so he sent his son (not really, or was he?) Jesus down to sort things out. But part of this process was to sacrifice Jesus through his crucifixion. This was God’s ultimate sacrifice for the good of humans.

At this stage you might guess what word I’m about to use to describe this… absurd!

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good right? So how did he let this situation get so out of control to start with? And who was Jesus? Some people say he was a manifestation of God. So God sent himself to be sacrificed to himself to convince himself to fix problems that he himself let happen in the first place? Absurd!

And what was the point of this sacrifice? Why not let Jesus stay on Earth a bit longer and spread the message more widely? Was his brutal execution really necessary? What does that tell us about God? That the whole idea of the sacrifice of Jesus is absurd!

I could go on for pages listing absurdities in Christianity but anyone who isn’t convinced by the flagrant abuses of logic and common sense I have already listed will probably never be convinced.

Clearly Christianity is absurd and, as my religious opponent agrees, that can easily lead to atrocities being committed. I’m not saying anyone who believes this stuff will become a homicidal terrorist, but it does encourage those who might be a bit unstable to begin with to act on those tendencies.

I’m also not saying that Christianity is all bad. There are some cool stories and some quite positive philosophy there, but there’s also a lot of completely absurd nonsense. If we gave it the same respect as a work of philosophy or mythology (Plato’s works or the Iliad for example) I think the atrocity aspect of it could be avoided, but I don’t think that’s likely in the near future!

Keeping it Real

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment

On two occasions today I realised that a person’s credibility can so easily be compromised if they take a position they hold too far – even if that position is fundamentally valid. The case first was at a meeting where two of my colleagues revealed conspirational beliefs which I think went beyond what was reasonable. And the second was the result of a podcast with a South African author who has written on the subject.

Now I will be the first to admit that some people might accuse me (with a certain degree of justification) of taking certain arguments too far. Especially when it comes to criticising religion and neoliberal politics I do occasionally launch into a rant which could be seen as diminishing my credibility. In response to that I will say that those should be clearly marked with the tag “rant” on the WordPress versions of this blog and with a red dot (indicating a high degree of controversy involved) on the version on my web site.

I would also add that, as I said in my previous post, in the more considered and serious blog posts I do try to moderate my opinions with “error bar” claims and clarifications on the extent and degree of my assertions. For example, if I say that religion is fundamentally nonsensical I will also admit that there are positive aspects such as providing a social network for its members, etc.

So if my colleagues think that big corporations (such as Monsanto) are evil, and that genetically modified food is unhealthy and dangerous, and that the NSA is capable of breaking any encrypted private communications, then I think they have started with a basic view with some validity but taken it too far, and possibly destroyed any positive impact the initial point might have had.

I agree that big corporations do act almost entirely to maximise their profits and have little regard for the social and environmental effects of their activities, but that doesn’t make them totally evil. They also make products which many of us find useful. And (in the case of Monsanto) the introduction of a “terminator gene” into crops can be seen as a way to stop unwanted propagation of the crop into non-GE farms (a good thing) as much as a way to prevent farmers re-using seeds from their first crop (arguably a bad thing). So that action is both good and bad and using it as proof of evil intent just lacks credibility.

Genetic modification (along with that other perennial favourite: nuclear power) is a common target for criticism for those with extreme green views, as well as those who just identify with the naturalistic fallacy (that “natural” things are good and “artificial” bad). I think GM food should be labelled and new GM crops should be throughly safety tested, but to suggest that GM is somehow inherently bad is just ridiculous.

And having an excessive fear of surveillance by spy agencies like the NSA is somewhat unhealthy. It is very unlikely that any organisation has progressed the state of the art in quantum computing sufficiently to break a really well encrypted message. Again, I think these organisations do exceed their initial remit (preventing terrorism and serious crime) but any criticism of them should be based on reality, not some doubtful exaggeration of their abilities.

And so moving onto the case of the South African author. He pointed out that many people distrust big corporations and governments but are more trustful of environmental organisations. He offered no statistical or empirical evidence of this and I would say roughly the opposite would be true for some sectors of society such as conservatives who distrust environmentalists, are neutral or negative about governments, and tend to trust corporations (again this is anecdotal rather than empirical).

But whatever the facts there is no doubt that different sections of society apply different standards to different organisations. And trust and distrust can be apportioned based on any criteria a person might favour. For example we should distrust governments because politicians often use morally questionable methods to get into power, but conversely we should trust them because in the end we did vote for them. We should trust environmentalists because they get little monetary advantage from their environmental causes, but we should distrust them because they are often ideologically driven. And we should trust corporations because they produce many of the products we use, but we should distrust them because profit is their prime motivation.

I want stronger environmental protection but I’m not going to join Greenpeace because I disagree with some of their policies, and I’m not going to boycott Monsanto because they do produce some good products, and I’m not going to claim right-wing governments don’t care abut the environment because they do occasionally do the right thing. If anyone wants to be credible they should avoid extreme positions and stick to the facts, even if the facts don’t support their beliefs so much.

Hmmm… sounds like good advice… now can I stick to it myself?

White Lies

October 21, 2013 1 comment

Is it OK to embellish the truth, or exaggerate reality, or ignore inconvenient data contrary to your preferred position, for the greater good? In the past I would have said no, that is not appropriate under any circumstances, and I have tried to present what I see as the facts with all the appropriate disclaimers. But after listening to a couple of podcasts on the subject, and being involved with an actual potential instance, I am beginning to think otherwise.

In a formal environment, such as a scientific paper, there must always be total truth. For example if the scientific data only shows climate change can be attributed to human activity with 95% certainty then that is what must be stated. But in informal and political discussions I think it might be OK to say that human activity is certainly the cause of climate change.

It is also OK to say that evolution is a fact and that the theory of evolution explains the mechanism extremely accurately. And it is OK to say that the Apollo Moon missions were real, and that secret elements of the US government were not behind the 9/11 attacks, and that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, and that there is a conventional explanation for UFO phenomena.

None of these statements are strictly true, but neither is this one: the Sun will rise tomorrow just like it always has. We should more accurately say that according to the experience of millennia and our best understanding of solar physics, the Sun will rise as usual tomorrow, but there is a small chance it might be affected by a passing black hole or it might become unstable. But no one plans their day around the tiny chance that the Sun might not continue to shine as expected which makes the absolute statement that it will good enough.

Now I agree that the phenomenon of the Sun behaving normally has a greater chance of being accurate than any of those other cases I mentioned above, but that just makes this an argument around where to draw the line. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the real world can be known with 100% certainty so unless we are going to stop making absolute statements completely there has to be a cut-off point where a percentage chance is thought of as being close enough to 100%.

Where that point is will depend partly on the subjective opinions of the person making the statement and it doesn’t so much matter where that point is as much as it should be consistent. So libertarians who deny the reality of global warming should also deny their own political philosophy which has far greater uncertainty. And creationists who deny evolution should never be certain about the myths and dogma of their church which have almost no supporting evidence. And people who think the 9/11 attacks were caused by secret American government elements should also wonder whether their own beliefs are the result of a secret propaganda campaign.

That’s what being a rational, skeptical person is all about, but by doing that you will be at a disadvantage to those who make absolute statements. Most people respond more to simple, direct statements. They find a statement from deniers that “climate change has always happened without human activity and there is no evidence that this time is any different” (which is simple but untrue) easier to relate to than “according to the majority of experts there is a 95% chance that global warming is primarily caused by human activity”. The less certain statement is true but sounds more evasive and uncertain to many people.

According to a veteran of science communication who was interviewed in one podcast we should be saying that climate change is real and caused by humans because most people think in absolutes and by that standard the statement is true. And saying that evolution is a fact is true because if evolution isn’t a fact then nothing is. There are few (if any) phenomenon in the real world that I can think of with better support. If evolution might be untrue then so might gravity and I invite the denier to jump off the top of a tall building to test this uncertainty.

The problem is that after some consideration I just can’t force myself to do it. Look back through this blog and you will see many instances where I have qualified a statement with an estimate of uncertainty, or a warning that nothing can be known with certainty, or that the essential truth of a theory might be modified in the future to give greater accuracy without changing the underlying idea.

According to some people that makes my arguments less convincing but I have to do what I think is right, even if it is less effective in some ways. A similar case applies in the atheism versus religion debate – but that is a subject for another blog entry.

A final point, in a similar way to the previous blog entry I again sound fairly arrogant, because I’m saying that I have the moral strength to tell the real truth where my opponents don’t. Yeah, well, I think most people from the “reality based community” would say that there’s an about 95% chance that is true… but we can never be sure!

Inspiring Leaders

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

In my previous blog entry’s comments someone posted the quote “You can’t inspire people if you are going to be uninspiring” which was attributed to Robert Reich who (as I learned after some Googling) is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and was Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration.

When I first saw it I thought: “sure, I agree with that” and I still partially do, but I think the quote also disguises a deeper point which I want to expand on here.

The point is this: why do we need leaders to inspire us at all? Can’t we just be self-motivated and create our own inspirations? I certainly don’t feel the need to be inspired by anyone to do my best at work, to be creative, and to try to be the most moral person I can. In fact, anyone who does require someone else to tell them what is good and original and moral can probably never attain those attributes.

You can’t take it too far of course, because it is certain that everyone has people they admire and (maybe subconsciously) try to emulate to some extent. But these people are extremely unlikely (at least I hope) to be their seniors at work, or politicians, or business leaders. In fact I generally feel nothing but contempt for most of those.

The sort of person I admire most is the free thinker, the maverick, the person who didn’t take the easy road and who ignored convention and did their own thing. That would include people like Richard Feynman (surely the coolest geek of all time), Albert Einstein (a genius and a real character) and Steve Jobs (who I agree was often seen as a business person but was more a creative innovator and someone who ignored most conventions).

None of these individuals set out to be inspiring, or to try to be a leader. Anyone who tries to do that might fool a few ignorant, naive people or maybe influence a few followers who want to take the opportunity to advance along with them, but they won’t really inspire. Generally it’s easy to distinguish between those who are genuine and those who are exercising nothing but a farcical imitation of true leadership.

So there are two problems here: first, the people who claim to be our leaders are generally conspicuously inadequate in that role; and second, why do we need them anyway? I don’t need a leader, although I think some people possibly do (but I do hesitate to consign anyone to the group who need to be lead). None of my best work, none of my best creative achievements, and none of my most moral actions have had the least thing to do with a leader. Quite the opposite is true. I generally do my best when I deliberately do the opposite of what those who claim the mantle of leadership demand.

I suspect that without leaders some people would feel lost because they might not have the strength of character, or moral integrity, or just the simple determination to make their own choices. In that case joining a political party or a church, or working in a company with over-bearing management might be a good choice. But that has little to do with seeking an inspiring leader – it’s just finding someone who wants to lead those too lazy to think for themselves.

Reading back through this post I sound pretty arrogant, but that criticism could apply to most of my blog entries, and who cares? I just write what I think and if it sounds arrogant then that’s just unfortunate. I do my own thing and I don’t really want to just follow anyone else, except perhaps Richard Feynman!

Nothing’s Too Hard…

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment

I have a favourite phrase which I think applies to many situations. It’s that “nothing’s too hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it themselves”. By that I mean people who either don’t know or don’t care (or both) about the complexities and difficulties of something often demand action in a particular way as if it is trivial, and to them it is, because they aren’t doing it.

To make this clearer let me give some examples. Of course, these are theoretical and should not be construed as applying to any particular person or workplace in the real world…

A manager enters a technical person’s office and demands to know why they haven’t charged out enough hours on their timesheet this week. There might be various reasons for this: maybe there was just less work to do for a short period of time, or maybe urgent work needed to be done which wasn’t chargeable, or maybe the person worked less hours because they did a lot extra last week. There are many possibilities, and most of them don’t fit in with how the manager thinks the system should work.

But it’s easy for the manager, of course, because they don’t have to do a timesheet. Why not? The usual answer is that “it’s not appropriate”. But that’s just answering the question by re-phrasing it. Why is it not appropriate? I think I know why and I think most managers do too. It’s because no one would pay them. They do nothing of any value that anyone would pay for and if they had to charge out their time that would soon become obvious.

So they can get all indignant when someone else fails to live up to a standard which they refuse to accept for themselves. No wonder most managers are despised rather than admired. They really are the most hypocritical, worthless parasites on the planet.

Here’s another example. A manager demands (notice how often that word comes up) to know why a technical problem hasn’t been fixed for an important client. The manager has promised it would be fixed quickly (not by them, of course) and when it hasn’t been naturally wants to know why.

Again, there are many reasons this might happen. Let me name a few: a problem can’t be resolved because the action required to fix it is against policy, or there is poor infrastructure in place which is beyond the person’s ability to fix, or other more important issues have arisen, or the fault lies with product choices the organisation has made rather than a specific issue.

But the manager is unlikely to consider any of these “appropriate”. They live in a dream world where every policy is perfect, the infrastructure works superbly, the technical staff are responsible even for things they aren’t allowed to change, there is never anything more important than their pet projects, and product choices are always above criticism.

It’s easy for the manager to promise a solution without the slightest understanding of what is involved and when no good solution is possible it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s never too hard to make promises when you don’t have to keep them yourself.

As I said, these are just generalisations based on incidents people tell me about (especially my source “Fred” whom I have mentioned before) and don’t necessarily refer to any specific situations. And I’m fairly sure there must be some really exceptional managers out there (although I have never met one or even heard of one existing). But I think they do represent reality in most cases. The system of hierarchical management most organisations have virtually guarantees this type of parasitic level of management will exist.

What can we do about it? Well I don’t know – it’s not my job to fix it – but how hard can it be?

Not a Religion

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

There are certain subjects which appear over and over again in atheism/science/rationality versus religion debates, and one of the most persistent (and therefore annoying) is the idea that atheism is just another religion. So I think I should cover the subject here and maybe refer those who disagree to this instead of just repeating the same thing over and over.

The usual problem with these discussions is defining what the words specifically mean, so I will do that and make my case based on that technical argument. But I will also make a second case based on a more tenuous argument which is more related to the usual meaning of the question.

So to the definition: religion noun (mass noun). Definition 1: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” and 2: “a particular system of faith and worship” and 3: “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion: [for example] consumerism is the new religion.” (Source: Oxford Dictionary of English 3rd edition)

Clearly atheism doesn’t fit into definition 1 because atheism specifically rejects the idea of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god (from the same dictionary: “atheism: disbelief in the existence of God or gods.”). Some people try to bypass this by saying “science is your god” or “evolution is your god” or something similar, but this is nonsense. A god must be a supernatural entity, not just some natural force or phenomenon. Twist the words enough and you can make anything mean anything else.

A similar argument applies to definition 2 which is really just a slightly different grammatical use of 1 which refers to the establishment or system supporting the pure religious phenomenon. Again the essential element is the supernatural which atheism rejects.

Definition 3 is a bit more problematic though. The problem is that this is really an imprecise use of the word and could almost be seen as a metaphor. Religions are followed with devotion so anything else which also involves great devotion is like a religion. But no one really thinks it is a religion. In the example consumerism is said to be a religion and maybe science or atheism could be used in that context as well. But there is no supernatural element here and that is the key difference.

So anyone who thinks atheism is a religion based on that definition would also have to accept that watching certain TV shows, or listening to a particular pop band, or drinking beer, or playing a computer game is also a religion and I think that shows how ridiculous that suggestion really is.

Looking at the dictionary definition then, atheism clearly isn’t a religion unless you want to extend the definition of the word to a point where it loses its real intent. And if you want to start pushing into that sort of area you could say that a [put any noun here] is a type of [insert any noun here which can be used to categorise things] and that really doesn’t prove a thing.

There are a couple of other points I want to make here beyond the dictionary definitions.

First, religion usually involves faith. I know some people might deny this but it does seem like a common statement and it is often the ultimate retreat for those who have been shown that there is really no other reason to take their belief system seriously.

Some apologists will claim that atheism and science also involve faith but I disagree. These involve confidence and practical philosophical insight. Think about it. Science has given us antibiotics, and computers, and a space program, and a million other things. What has religion given us? An amusing myth? A social construct which has been useful on occasions? The two aren’t really equivalent and that’s why atheists have confidence in science instead of faith in religion.

And second, atheists are rarely emotionally attached to their worldview. Unlike religious people who get comfort or closure or an easily understood explanation of the world from their belief, atheists tend to be atheists simply because there’s no good reason to believe anything else (there is absolutely zero good empirical evidence of a god existing).

It must be so easy if you can convince yourself that there is a supernatural entity controlling the world and looking after you. There is no need to try to understand the real origin of the universe because you just have to believe a childishly simple myth instead. You don’t have to spend time thinking about what is right and wrong because it’s all spelled out in an old book instead. And you avoid having to be responsible for helping yourself because god will look after you.

So atheism is the more difficult approach because it involves a lot more moral strength and independent thought. In many ways religion is just the easy way out: it involves no original thought, no difficult examination of individual moral codes, and no understanding of difficult scientific concepts. It just involves remembering some childish myths from an old book. What could be easier?

In summary, it seems to be that by any reasonable definition atheism is not a religion. Anyone who makes the claim that it is will probably also try to say that god exists because the laws of physics are like a god, or that the Bible is just a metaphorical version of the real history of the universe, or that all religions are the same attempts at describing a true spiritual force present in the universe, or some other total nonsense. But that’s all it is: nonsense. It’s playing with words to the point that there is no meaning left. Atheism is most definitely not a religion.