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Be Skeptical of Yourself

May 29, 2014 6 comments

Sometimes when I debate people on subjects which might be seen as somewhat controversial I like to demonstrate their bias by illustrating a similar point using a comparable issue which I hope will have a bit less emotional attachment for the person. For example, if someone refuses to accept the fact of evolution because “some scientists disagree with it” I might point out that there is some disagreement with similar, otherwise well accepted theories, as well.

So the conversation might go something like: sure, you can find some people who claim to be experts who don’t accept evolution but there are also people who don’t accept the theory of gravity, or some aspects of world history, or climate change as well, and few reasonable people would deny these.

By now you can probably see the problem with this approach because denial of various well accepted science tends to happen in groups: people who deny evolution also often deny climate change, for example. So in reality I am weakening my argument rather than strengthening it. Why? Because I tend to underestimate the degree to which some people live in a world ruled by a deluded, anti-intellectual, anti-science narrative.

In this fantasy world evolution, Big Bang cosmology, climate change, and many other ideas which have been proved beyond reasonable doubt are all viewed with equal suspicion. What I like to say (in a somewhat unkind way) is that if you are a crazy on one subject there’s a good chance you will be a crazy on many others as well!

A similar phenomenon occurs with conspiracy theories. I know people who think many conspiracies, such as the Moon Hoax, 9/11, JFK, chemical contrails, water fluoridation, etc, are all true. Do they really think the Illuminati, the New World Order, alien reptile overlords, or whoever else is behind all this stuff could really successfully execute all of these conspiracies?

Up until now I have mainly mentioned crazy beliefs which conservatives tend to back but I have to say that there are similar problems with many beliefs of those on the political left. I was discussing this with a person from Greenpeace the other day. I told them I support a lot of their work but I think their total rejection of technologies like genetic modification and nuclear power is wrong and based on ideology rather than facts.

To be fair the person was pretty good about it (probably because she wanted a donation) but I doubt whether my well reasoned approach made a lot of difference to the way she felt about GM or nuclear power.

So I think I need to be a bit more careful about the comparisons I use in future. For example, if I am debating a religious nut who thinks evolution isn’t true because some scientists doubt it (in fact I know of no scientists who doubt the essential truth of evolution sufficiently to publish a paper about it in a respected journal) then instead of comparing it with climate change, which they will probably also reject for equally invalid reasons, I could use the historicity of Jesus.

Because there is a lot of doubt about Jesus. I admit that the majority of experts (but not all) think there was a person (or persons) that the stories we now know were based on, but few think those stories are completely true and the doubt, confusion, lack of evidence, contradictory details, and general lack of certainty in the Jesus myth is far greater than anything in the scientific realm which is remotely comparable, including climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang.

So if people want to doubt evolution or climate change because of the “significant level of disagreement amongst experts” (which actually doesn’t even exist) then they should be even more skeptical about Jesus. But, of course, they won’t be, because they are happy to become “skeptics” (which is not the correct word, it should be “deniers”) about some subjects but are totally credulous when it comes to others.

Well I’m sorry, but part of being a real skeptic is checking the authenticity of everything, not just the things which contradict an existing religious or political view. And anyone who finds themselves settling into a pattern of denying the standard set of conservative topics should be very skeptical – of themselves!

Paint by Numbers

May 27, 2014 Leave a comment

I often ponder the source of the problems we have in modern society and I spend a certain amount of time discussing the issues with friends and colleagues as well. My colleague Fred (not his real name) who works in a similar job to mine (computer support in a large organisation) is one of my best sources of inspiration and I think we have developed a credible hypothesis to explain many of the problems we face.

The problem gets back to how many senior people in organisations tend to use a “paint by numbers” approach. The metaphor is appropriate because people who have no skills and talent and who want to create “art” might do a paint by numbers picture (one where the paint is applied inside an outline using a colour specified by a number on the paper) and anyone with a similar lack of skills who wants to manage an organisation or project might do the same thing by following a list of rules and conventions.

But just like the paint by numbers picture isn’t really art, the result of similar ideas to the workplace isn’t really management either, it’s just a lazy, cowardly excuse for real leadership.

And this is what Fred claims to have found: a ridiculous application of “best practice” and “industry standard” techniques which rarely, if ever, produce a good outcome and certainly totally eliminate any possibility of getting a truly innovative or excellent result.

He wonders why the people engaged in these activities are paid so much when they don’t do anything requiring intelligence, knowledge, or skill. Would we pay someone a lot to paint a picture by numbers?

He thinks it’s partly related to avoidance of risk. That is fair at one level because avoiding risk can be a good thing, but not when it totally precludes any possibility of genuine progress. And the motivation for risk aversion is also interesting: it seems to be more about avoidance of the possibility of personal blame for any problems. After all, if a person follows all the guidelines, industry standards, rules, regulations, and best practice, and things still go wrong (as they usually do) they can hardly be blamed, can they?

But it’s also related to the personal inadequacies of the people making the decisions (according to Fred). They genuinely seem to be totally lacking in intelligence, imagination, and skill. So it’s like the artist with no artistic ability. They can’t really paint but they can still paint by numbers, and as long as the lines are carefully followed and the numbers interpreted properly they think they have succeeded. The fact that they have just created something which is just a copy of what everyone else is doing and may not even be relevant in the exact environment it is being used in makes no difference at all.

A classic example (from my experience rather than Fred’s) might be tech company helpdesks. They all seem to be the same: not very good. Ask anyone what some of their most frustrating experiences are and there’s a good chance a helpdesk of a company like Telecom, or Hewlett Packard, or just about any other tech leader, will come to mind.

It’s not that every helpdesk is bad and that they don’t sometimes get good results, but usually they are annoying, inefficient, and counter-productive for all concerned.

So why are they so common? Well there might be several reasons. First, they make a certain amount of superficial sense. Second, they are cheap, especially if they are run from a low wage economy like India. But mainly it’s because (as I have been saying in this post) they are standard, they are just the way everyone else does support so why actually do anything different?

As a consumer of technical products and services (especially computer, telecommunications and internet) from many companies I would be very happy to pay a bit more for decent service, but I can’t because there is literally no one out there who does it, they have all reverted to the very poor standard which is the norm.

It’s all about paint by numbers and the end picture isn’t very good!

Spying and Lying

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

There’s a quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, which I think is relevant to modern society. It is “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Franklin never actually said those words but they are a paraphrase of something he did say, so give me a little bit of poetic license here for the sake of my greater point.

Of course I am quoting this in the context of the seemingly endless series of reports of spying activity which have appeared recently. Even little, isolated New Zealand is a part of it because the issue is global and everyone is affected.

Many revelations of what has been happening are a result of the documents stolen (or “liberated” depending on your perspective) by Edward Snowden. It seems likely that what he did was technically illegal but if it is then it is surely an example of where breaking the law can be the moral imperative of a good person.

New Zealand is a member of the “Five Eyes” spy network which has the US, UK, Canada, and Australia as its other members. There is no doubt that New Zealand is the most junior member in this group so you might think it’s a good deal for us because we get access to most of the material collected by those bigger countries, but is it really?

There might be a case to justify this activity if it really was just used for fighting serious crime and terrorism, but it’s becoming very clear that those functions are far from all it is used for. It seems that economic and political surveillance might be a more important function of the system and I don’t think many people would want us to be involved with that.

In the past New Zealand has taken a courageous stand on moral principles against the US. When we banned US naval ships from our ports because the Americans wouldn’t say whether they used nuclear technologies we were admired by many and the consequences from the US military were not that significant.

But our prime minister, John Key, seems more interested in toadying up to the Americans and getting photo ops with the US president than doing what is morally right.

And it seems likely that the official story on what New Zealand’s spy agencies, especially the GCSB, are doing isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of their real activities. For example it now seems likely, contrary to previous assurances, that the GCSB does have the ability to search bulk metadata using XKeyscore, a program which we never even knew existed until Snowden’s document leaks.

The prime minister and the director of the GCSB sound like they cannot be believed. Any awkward questions are classed as relating to “operational issues”. That makes it just too easy to avoid questions they don’t want to answer. Citing operational issues as an excuse not to answer questions is just a variation on the old “commercial sensitivity” defence and I’ve commented elsewhere on what a joke that is.

In fact listening to the different sides debating this issue I have to say that Greens leader, Russel Norman, sounds the most reasonable by far. John Key alternates between dubious assurances that everything is OK and for the greater good, and refusals to comment; Ian Fletcher (director of the GCSB) just sounds less convincing all the time; but Norman sounds quite moderate and fair.

We know the GCSB illegally spied on New Zealand citizens. We know the Five Eyes network has been used to spy on our political allies. We know the key people involved with our surveillance program have been very “economical with the truth” either by refusing to comment, or being deliberately misleading, and maybe even lying. We know these spy networks are used to benefit big American corporations. What more do we need?

It’s time to take another moral stand like we did with the anti-nuclear ships issue and refuse to cooperate with the US in its unscrupulous activities. We might not gain any real practical benefit from this but we might again be seen as a country which does what’s right, and that seems to be a very rare thing today.

Theology Should Get Real

May 15, 2014 Leave a comment

I am often critical of various professions and wonder how much actual reality they involve. For example, I have wondered in the past whether economists genuinely study the real world, whether accountants just work with made up numbers, and whether philosophers are just dabbling with interesting but irrelevant intellectual trivialities. But none of these even begin to approach the level of silliness and just pure pointlessness of theology!

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the Christian “Trinity” of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost (whatever that is, because I still didn’t know even after listening to the podcast). The only thing I could compare it with is some fantasy geeks discussing the finer points and the deeper meaning of The Lord of the Rings, or some similar work of fiction. It really is that silly!

I’m not saying that studying fiction, or fantasy, or mythology is a bad thing, but I am saying that when that discussion sounds exactly like a discourse on something that actually exists in the real world it all becomes somewhat surreal.

I mean the discussion over what the Trinity represents is really quite a simple one and doesn’t deserve all of the deep analysis and intense thought which goes into it. The answer is simple: early Christians were Jews but they had created a figure (Jesus, who was probably loosely based on a real person) which they endowed with the status of a god, so they had to make something up to explain that situation (because monotheism was a prerequisite to them) and voila! the Trinity was created! Yes, as I said, I still can’t figure out where that third component comes from.

I should say at this point that I don’t have any really strong objections to theology, or economics, or accounting, and especially not to philosophy. It’s just that we should be careful about how seriously we take them. And there is another point too: many of these areas are deeply divided between groups which are more firmly based in a real-world, scientific view, and those (usually with more traditional views) who live in what I might rather unkindly suggest is “Cloud-Cuckoo Land”.

For example in philosophy the group who follow analytical philosophy are far more likely (in my opinion – they would probably disagree) to make a useful, practical contribution to knowledge than those who might be seen as Continental philosophers. And theologians who examine religious belief realistically: as an interesting social and psychological phenomenon, or as a highly speculative form of philosophy, are more likely to make useful contributions than those who start with the (apparently false) assumption that a god exists at all.

When you talk to theologians (and I have because I work in a university with a theology department) it’s hard to get a straight answer about anything. For example, I once asked if theology starts with the initial “fact” that god exists. After about half an hour of convoluted explanation I still wasn’t much wiser about the subject.

I agree that not all questions can be answered simply and many require an answer with a certain degree of nuance, but at the same time making a simple question more complicated and obscuring a simple idea with needlessly complex reasoning is sometimes a sign that there’s a certain amount of deliberate obfuscation of the lack of profundity involved.

So theology is fine but it belongs in the same category as mythology, literature, and (at best) highly speculative philosophy. Let’s have the discussion on theological topics but clarify the fictional aspects of it with plenty of phrases like “according to the Biblical myth” and “in the story about Jesus” and “early Christians believed”. That way we can keep the whole topic in the right perspective.

Another Cosmic Offense

May 9, 2014 Leave a comment

While exploring the internet I occasionally find myself at sites I normally wouldn’t visit, such as those dedicated to religious beliefs. OK, to be honest I sometimes visit those deliberately just to stir up a bit of trouble when I am in the mood for “trolling”, but in the case I am discussing here it was just a fortuitous incident.

So this site (which was actually a blog post titled “3 Words, 7 Letters, One Cosmic Offense”) discussed using a phrase which God might find offensive, specifically “Oh my God”. At least I think that’s what he was referring to because he never actually wrote it, presumably because he was worried about incurring his God’s wrath.

So at this point you are probably thinking one of two things: if you are just as nutty as the author of the site, or if you just unthinkingly accept the old adage that religion is above criticism, you are probably thinking he is quite right and that non-believers like me have no right to criticise; but if you are a normal, rational person you are probably thinking more along the same lines as me.

So, what am I thinking?

Well how about this: has God really got nothing better to do than spy on us (kind of creepy really) and get upset if we use the wrong words? Why isn’t he out there doing the things which most people would see as being more important, like helping the poor, and those affected by disasters (the disasters God himself caused because he’s omnipotent), or all those other “good and loving God” things?

And according to this blogger saying “Oh my God” isn’t just a small thing either. The post seems to suggest that saying it is really bad. In fact “Using this phrase is the same as urinating on the cross of Jesus, and spitting on the face of God.” and “it’s the most vile exclamation that can come out of your mouth. It might as well be vomit.” and “they are defecating in God’s holy temple by saying these three disgusting words”.

I love the way these religious zealots get all wound up about this sort of thing and resort to all sorts of crazy hyperbole. It reminds me of the political zealots, like the libertarian nut job I have been debating recently, who seem to be under the illusion that the government’s main purpose in life is pointing guns at people and shooting them as required.

But I suppose I should say that I do find this shortcut to upsetting God very convenient. I mean saying a few words is so much more convenient than all those other things, because it’s so hard to find a handy cross to urinate on nowadays (many of them are a bit inaccessible on top of church steeples, etc). And the next time I have the urge to spit on the face of God I’ll just say “Oh my God” instead. Maybe God is a thoughtful person after all because he’s made it just so easy to insult him – there’s very little effort required at all.

Because everyone knows that evil atheists like me love insulting God because we just hate him so much and totally refuse to admit his rightful authority or even his existence! Well to be perfectly honest if God did exist and he was a such a doofus that he cared about something so trivial then I probably would enjoy insulting him.

But you might be wondering how I know all of this is true. It’s because it says so in the Bible and that’s never wrong! Exodus 20:7 says “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain”. I guess because I’m a repeat offender I wil get even more severe punishment but I suppose I deserve it. After all, it seems that God puts a lot of effort into enforcing this rule. No wonder he has no time left to look after the poor, and sick, and homeless!

Something Rotten

May 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks the wheels really seem to have started falling off for our government. There’s no surprises with that of course, because it seems to happen to them all. After they have been in power for a few years other parties have got really arrogant and started to self-destruct too. It was a major factor in why the previous Labour government was defeated about 6 years ago, and still hasn’t recovered today (for other reasons for Labour’s demise see my previous blog entry).

The two most obvious recent signs of this arrogance are what I call the “Maurice Williamson Fiasco” and the “Judith Collins Oravida Saga”. There are some similarities between these two which are quite revealing of the underlying problems: first, the ministers were caught helping out their rich friends; second, they thought what they were doing was OK; and third, what they did was not really part of their job.

But the two handled the situation quite differently. Williamson, who I always had a certain amount of respect for, just resigned as a minister quietly. But Collins, who I have always thought was an evil witch, made a complete idiot of herself and made things a lot worse.

Of course, our Prime Minister got things exactly around the wrong way, as he always does, and forced Williamson to resign but just gave Collins a few days off because she was “under pressure”. Well, lots of people are under pressure but not many get a paid holiday as a result!

When constituents of Williamson’s electorate were asked there was a lot of support for him because they said his transgression was minor and he was just trying to get a fair outcome. This is all highly debatable of course, because it’s far from clear whether he was aiding or inhibiting justice. But Williamson is also liked because of his work for his constituents. I think he is basically a good person who is probably lead astray occasionally by his libertarian tendencies.

But Collins is another story. Her constituents might be getting a bit sick of her, when we hear comments like “I spend as little time as possible thinking about her” (don’t we all) and “I don’t think she’s very honest, she’s lying” (well, duh) and “it’s her arrogance and I don’t like how she always manages to get out of things” (so far) and “she’s lost her way… things don’t ring true” (yes, we all noticed that) and “[she thinks] the public is beneath contempt” (but who is really the one worthy of contempt?)

Sure, many people might say those comments could be applied to all politicians, especially those on the right, but clearly there are degrees of arrogance, dishonesty, contempt, and just general malevolence, and I think Collins is one of the worst. But of course good old Shonky John Key still thinks she’s great! The same opinion he has of some other worthless incompetents on his team, like Hekia Parata. He really does have a habit of backing the worst people and abandoning some of the better ones.

It does seem that many people are beginning to understand just how corrupt this government is. By “corrupt” here I don’t mean that they are corrupt in a legal sense, just that they have corrupt morals. For example Collins, goes to China at the taxpayers expense, puts a lot of effort into helping her husband’s company while ignoring many others who were also in trouble, lies about it to both her leader and the public, then her party gets a $30,000 donation for their trouble. If that isn’t corruption by any reasonable standard then I don’t know what is!

But maybe it’s a sign of things to come. Maybe this incompetence and arrogance is a sign of the end for the current government, just like it was for Labour 6 years ago, and we will have a change at the election later this year. I certainly hope so because this government is past its “use by” date and has started to go rotten!

Where’s the Center?

May 2, 2014 Leave a comment

New Zealand will hold a general election later this year and the inevitable political machinations have already begun. The election’s result is very uncertain because the center-right block (National and maybe Act or the Conservatives or NZ First) and the center-left block (Labour, the Greens, and maybe NZ First) are nearly equal in the polls.

The two main parties, National and Labour, are competing for the center and the good news is that the center has drifted quite considerably back towards a genuine centrist position over about the last 10 years.

New Zealand, like most of the world, has been a victim of the right-wing economic theories which have represented the zeitgeist since the late 70s and early 80s. So privatisation, user pays, open labour markets, and all the other standard neo-liberal ideologies have been the order of the day. But not so much any more.

Sure our right-wing party, National, have engaged in an asset sales program which has made no sense at all and was undoubtedly the product of ideology rather than practicality, but that program involved only had partial sales (of less than 50%) and even National say there will probably be no more in the future.

It seems to me that the government has seen that asset sales aren’t a good thing, but have got these ones out of the way because it was part of their agenda, and are now happy to avoid any further failures of this type in the future. At the height of the neo-liberal era in the late 80s and 90s the sales would have been total and further plans would always have been being made.

That is an obvious sign of a move back not so much to the left, but away from the extreme right. I have always said that the policies of the last 30 years have been far-right (economically, not socially), even when our ostensibly left-wing party, Labour, has been in power. Surely this move away from those extremist policies is a sign that I was correct.

You might reasonably think that the left would win easily after National has been there for 6 years and has suffered a number of rather embarrassing problems recently. But you would be wrong, for 2 reasons…

First, the Prime Minister and leader of National, John Key, is a very skillful politician. I’m not saying he’s a good person, a brilliant and creative intellect, an inspiring leader, or anything else, just a skillful politician, and that isn’t necessarily a compliment!

Second, the Labour opposition isn’t exactly a great alternative. The problem seems to be that everything they might criticise National for could equally well be applied to them, especially in the past. During the early to mid 2000s Labour was probably about where National is now because they had moved to the right (starting in 1984) and now National has drifted back to the left where Labour was then.

So when Labour criticises National’s asset sales program it seems rather hypocritical because they started it all in 1984. And when they criticise National’s MPs for being rich and being out of touch with ordinary New Zealanders they should look at most of themselves first.

What Labour should be doing is confessing to their past “sins” and saying that they now want to put things right. They should say “yes, we sold assets because it seemed like the right thing at the time, but since then reality has shown us that those sales weren’t good for the majority of New Zealanders so now we want to try to fix the situation”.

They probably can’t do too much about the type of people they have before the election but I think a major “cleansing” of all of those associated with their deviant neoliberal past should be carried out over the next few years.

At the last election over 800,000 people didn’t vote. When asked why many of them say something like “because all the parties are the same”. Maybe they have a point.