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Collateral Damage

June 30, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent document released under the official information act in the US reveals how using drones for killing anyone deemed an enemy is officially authorised, but more ominously the risk of any civilians being “accidentally” killed in these actions is also officially accepted.

The Obama administration fought for years to keep the memo from becoming public which seems to indicate that it realises the contents aren’t acceptable. Of course, killing off a few (or a few hundred thousand) innocent foreigners has never been a major issue to the US government and to a lot of American people as well, so there is only a certain section of the population who would have a problem with this.

Actually, I think it would increase some groups’ admiration for the current administration, although I can’t help but think that most of those would never vote for Obama, or any other Democratic candidate, so maybe it would have been better for them to keep it secret after all.

But even if you think the policy is justified (and there are some reasonable justifications which I will mention later) there are some major problems with it.

First, it sets a precedent for others to follow. Only 3 countries (the US, UK, and Israel) are known to have killer drones at this point but their use will inevitable increase in the future. And when that happens the US has already shown that they can be used relatively indiscriminately for any military or political purpose and without too much regard for collateral damage.

Second, it shows that the US who has appointed itself as the global peace-keeper and fixer of all difficult military and political global issues isn’t really a lot more moral than some of the people they choose to label as “terrorists”.

Third, there is a disturbing attitude of secrecy regarding this activity. I can accept that some operational details should be kept secret but the general policy should surely be made public so that the people can judge it. Or more likely, that is exactly what they don’t want.

And finally, killing combatants is one thing (and that itself is often unjustified) but having such a casual attitude to killing civilians is just encouraging further anti-American militant extremist activity (or call it terrorism if you really must).

Like many articles I see on the internet some of the most interesting points were made in the comments, so let’s look at a few of those…

Comment: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”

My thoughts: Exactly. I know I shouldn’t have had any real expectations, but Obama is really a huge disappointment. Of course, no matter how bad he is he is still better than many other presidents and, to be fair, many of the issues he has had to deal with have been inherited from previous administrations. But in the US they really have a choice between a conservative, far right, pro-corporate party, and the Republicans who are so far off the political spectrum I really don’t know how to even classify them any more!

Comment: “Exactly when will we declare The War on Terrorism is over?”

My thoughts: Never. This fake war is just an open-ended excuse for the US to use military force in other countries to affect politics and economics primarily for the benefit of the ruling elite of corporate America. Yes, I know. Sounds like a conspiracy, but this one is real.

Comment: “So far in the ‘War on Terror’, we’ve killed on average 50 civilians for every terrorist. And all they’re doing is driving up terrorist recruitment.”

My thoughts: My point exactly. I’m not sure if those numbers are strictly accurate, but I thought the ratio might actually be higher. It depends a lot on your definitions.

Comments: “So do I vote for the party that established the policy, or the one that continued it? Decisions, decisions.” and “Aren’t those the same at this point?”

My thoughts: As I have already said, the Democrats are terrible, but compared with the Republicans, well… I guess you just choose the least bad of two terrible choices.

Comment: “Regardless of whether that American is aiding the terrorist or just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, he is a citizen and is entitled to a fair trial under the constitution. Actually, even non-US citizens are supposed to be entitled to a fair trial.”

My thoughts: Actually, no. Because America has conveniently labelled any murders it wants to carry out anywhere in the world as part of a “war” it can do whatever it likes without any referral to inconvenient laws. Even the rules of war seem to be forgotten in many cases, but these victims are terrorists, so they don’t count.

Comment: “Drone attacks in Pakistan have killed: 2,291 militants, 286 civilians, 274 unknown. So worst case, if all ‘unknown’ were civilians, still 80% effective (for drone attacks in one country), versus your claim of 2% effective rate (overall). Again, not claiming 20% collateral damage is acceptable, but if your number is accurate then it shows that drone attacks are much more successful than whatever else has been done.”

My thoughts: This was in response to a comment claiming that 98% of victims of drone attacks were innocent bystanders. In fact that is highly unlikely but the official figures are probably biased in the opposite direction. In fact drone attacks are a relatively efficient way to eliminate enemy leaders with far less extra death and damage so I guess we should be happy about that. The real question is: is there justification for these interventions at all?

Comment: “I’m confused. How is using a drone to kill targets, and innocent civilians around that target, any different from a suicide bombing? Other than the suicide bomber having the brass to die for what he believes in, that is.”

My thoughts: Good question. I guess you could say “they started it” but did they? You could say “they are terrorists, we are a legal military operation” but that is just a matter of perspective. And in fact the comment is true: the American military are cowards compared with the (very badly motivated) courage of the enemy.

Comment: “Perhaps it is time to declare the “war on terror” over and simply protect our global interests like we have always done, at least that is clearly defined and can be regulated properly.”

My thoughts: What a ridiculous idea. That would involve honesty!

Pastafarian Infidels!

June 23, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent interview on the New Zealand TV program “Campbell Live” has caused a lot of amusement and a certain amount of controversy as well. It involved an individual, known simply as Russell, who chose to wear a colander (aka pasta strainer) on his head while a photo was taken for his driver license. Why? Well here’s my summary of the interview which might explain…

Campbell described the situation as magnificent and mad. Russell was wearing his colander during the TV interview. He wore one while getting his driving license, and the license with the photo appeared on the internet leading to this brief moment of fame. Russell says the driver license is real and Campbell asks what point was he making?

He says he was being humorous but with a serious intent. He wanted to make people think by making them laugh. He was fully complying with NZ law. The point is that he was claiming same privileges as those who believe in “a magic man in the sky”. They can wear religious headwear, and the colander (also known as a pasta strainer) is his.

At this point I should clarify what’s going on here, just in case you have never heard of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Google “Flying Spaghetti Monster”). It is a satirical religion and its followers are known as “Pastafarians”. Because their deity is a spaghetti monster, wearing a pasta strainer makes sense.

Russell claims he is just making point about absurdity of the concessions made for religion. He agrees these are minor concessions but they are still ridiculous. Campbell says that In New Zealand we have a fairly good balance for religious privileges which do no harm. Russell says yes and no, and that the problem is that people’s beliefs inform their actions, for example look at what is happening in Iraq right now.

He finished the interview by observing that: this is just one little poke at whole thing, and if only everyone made their points in such a harmless way the world would be a better place.

So this is all about making fun of religious beliefs, and why not because most of them are utterly ridiculous. I have commented before that I think moderate believers (usually unwittingly) help support extremists by simply sharing and encouraging the same incoherent and irrational beliefs (and that’s exactly what they are despite post hoc rationalisations by people like Richard), so I think making fun of religion is a really positive move.

The comments about the incident on the internet were quite varied. Some were very supportive but others were quite dismissive. Here are some examples…

Comment 1: Russell’s a dick if he’s trying to get at people wearing headwear for licence photos.

My response: Yeah well I think there might have been a bit more to it than that. Wearing headwear is just the outward manifestation of irrationality. The point is that there are many strict rules in society which can be bypassed if a religion is involved. This doesn’t seem to be fair, plus it makes religions seem more important and worthy of respect that they should be.

Comment 2: 10:14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. 10:15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.

My response: So nasty old God makes a reference to how he killed thousands of innocent people after his little display of temper at Sodom and Gomorrah (not to mention turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, and let’s not even get started on what happened after that!) and is now threatening people who don’t respect his immoral fraud. Now you know why us atheists all love your religion so much!

Comment 3: And it starts… nice one everyone. Buying in to this… really? Just have an argument over this guy who has the right to practice his view… his view is his view and he has every right to have his religion, whether we believe it or not. It was a statement he made, and Campbell live chose to glorify his statement. AWESOME news. Im guessing there wasn’t much on the ole newsboard today.

My response: Well yes, you have a point. I watch Campbell Live most days (it’s on while I’m cooking dinner otherwise I don’t watch TV much because it’s crap) and it is usually very clear when there is a “slow news day” because Campbell features some sort of rather inane item instead of real news.

Comment 4: To those Christians out there that’s Jesus spreading words of fear and forced obedience, it’s not just a ‘muslim’ thing. The church of the spaghetti monster does not threaten its people, it is the greatest religion on the planet bar none.

My response: Sacrilege! Whoever made this comment will be stomped into oblivion by the hooves of the one true goddess: the Invisible Pink Unicorn. That is the one true religion! (yeah, just Google “Invisible Pink Unicorn”)

The Naturalistic Fallacy

June 17, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the most common errors people make when reaching conclusions about the truth or otherwise of various claims involves the naturalistic fallacy. This states that natural things are good and artificial things are bad. For example, organic food is assumed to be better than “normal” food produced using standard farming techniques.

This idea isn’t totally ridiculous because many modern farming processes exist to increase the yield of crops, or to make them more resistant to disease, or to make them last better. Sometimes these aims might result in loss of flavour or even nutritional content. But is all of this – no matter how reasonable it seems – actually true?

Apparently not.

Recent evidence seems to indicate that organic food is unlikely to be much better and is often actually worse than conventional forms in almost every way imaginable. Every claim the organic proponents make is almost the exact opposite of the truth.

So let’s look at some of these claims…

First, organic food is produced by smaller operators and the whole process is more open and honest. Well no, organic food is often produced on small farms but these are controlled by the same big corporations who deal with conventional food. They use deliberately misleading advertising and cynically manipulate the rules to gain greater profit. The have also engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to influence public opinion.

Second, organic food is free of the dangerous chemicals found on conventional food, so it is both safer and better for the natural world. Actually, probably not. Organic food can be produced using pesticides and other chemicals but these must be “natural”. There are numerous problems with natural pesticides: they usually have to be used in greater amounts or concentrations, they are not regulated to the same extent as “artificial” chemicals, and because they are assumed to be safe (usually with no good evidence) less stringent safety precautions are taken.

Some studies show organic food has less pesticide residue but this is likely because only artificial chemicals are tested for. If all types were tested the organic food would probably have far greater amounts. And any small residue on conventional foods is far below safe minimum levels and can easily be washed off anyway.

So the number one reason people buy organic food is to avoid chemicals, yet the exact opposite is probably the truth. Note that there are some organic foods which really are grown without any chemicals – artificial or natural – but these are the vast minority and are likely to suffer from other problems.

The next claim is that organic food is better for the environment. Well there’s no real evidence that this is the case. When higher rates of organic chemicals are used it might mean the environment is more affected. And the lower yields from some organic food means greater areas need to be in production.

Next is the claim that organic food tastes better or is more nutritious. There is no consistent evidence supporting this claim either, except that some organic food has slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients, but this might be just because organic food tends to be smaller which naturally increases concentrations of everything.

So it’s far from clear that organic is better in any way. At the very best the results are mixed and both methods of production have their benefits. Maybe the biggest problem is that what might have been at one time a genuine attempt to grow better produce in a more sustainable way has now been hijacked by big business (this is based on US data and it might not be as bad in other countries).

In the US organic food costs about three times more than conventional. For that you get something which is probably less safe, often worse for the environment, is unlikely to have any health or taste benefits, and just makes big corporations even richer. If that’s what you want then go ahead, buy organic. But just be aware that things aren’t always what they seem!

Can Computers Think?

June 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Whether computers can think or not has been a question many people have asked for many years. Another related question is: if they can’t think now will they ever be able to, or is thinking an attribute that only living things can have? And then there’s the question of whether non-human animals can think and at what level of nervous system complexity does thinking start.

Clearly this is another one of the nuanced questions I have been asking recently. Questions with a yes or no answer are just so boring, I think!

Of course if you follow the tech and science news you will know why I am asking this question at this time. It is because a computer has passed the famous “Turing Test” for the first time. The test is named after the brilliant early computer scientists, Alan Turing, who proposed it in a paper in 1950.

The test involves a person conversing – using a screen and keyboard – with two entities: one is a human and the other is a computer. After 5 minutes the person must decide which is the human. If the person guesses the computer is the human at least 30% of the time (chance would give 50%) the computer is said to be thinking.

There have been many attempts in the past but in the end the computer has always given itself away by doing something that no normal human would do, such as responding with a totally irrelevant comment, or re-asking a question it just used, or mis-understanding the syntax or semantics of the human comment.

But this time the computer was better than that. The experiment was done as the Royal Society and used experienced judges, so it has some credibility. On the other hand the computer was pretending to be a 13 year old Ukrainian boy and I would have to wonder whether simulating a middle aged English professor might have been more of a challenge.

But even if the computer could do that I still don’t think most people would think it was really thinking, because, with all due respect to Turing, I really don’t think this is a good test of thinking. I would suggest a general purpose intelligence test, which involves solving problems the computer wasn’t prepared for, would be a better choice. As far as I know no one has attempted this type of test yet.

So if computers can’t really think yet, will they be able to in the future? It’s hard to see how the answer could be anything except “yes” because, unless you are dualist (in the philosophy of mind sense), there is no inherent difference between an information processing system made of brain cells and one made of transistors (or whatever might replace those in a quantum or other future computer technology).

Current computers are designed to perform simple operations very accurately and very quickly. For what they do they out-perform any brain by a factor of a trillion. In fact one decent computer – when doing the sort of calculation it is good at – could probably out-perform every brain on Earth combined in terms of speed, plus guarantee to get the right answer.

But it’s still not thinking.

Some researchers are working on different ways to make computers work, concentrating more on making them brain-like. Whether this will work or not is unclear because similar ideas have been implemented in software using techniques such as neural networks for years.

And if a computer isn’t thinking in 50 years time I think we really will have to start looking at dualist possibilities. Maybe there really is something more to consciousness than the brain. What it could possibly be I have no idea, but I see no reason to even contemplate the possibility until there is good evidence that we need to look.

Having a thinking machine to discuss things with would be a really interesting experience. I don’t want to sound like a complete loser computer geek who spends too much time with his computer, but I can’t help but think that they might make a lot more sense than most humans!

No Opinion

June 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Federated Farmers is organisation which supports farmers’ interests here in New Zealand. I’ve never been very impressed with them because they generally follow a fairly conservative line which ignores real innovation and positive change and is mainly interested in maintaining the status quo where agriculture gets significant privileges that the rest of us don’t have.

So from my perspective they’re a pretty terrible organisation to begin with, and you might be able to imagine how my opinion of them worsened when I heard a recent comment they made on climate change.

I have to admit that at least they had a slightly different spin on the problem and demonstrated a slightly more nuanced view than some other groups, but on the other hand they still showed a great deal of ignorance and irresponsibility.

So basically their statement was that “Federated Farmers has no opinion on whether climate change is real or not and it makes no difference to farmers anyway.”

You might say that FF is not an organisation which is an expert on climate change so maybe they shouldn’t have an opinion, but they are also not experts on other subjects such as social and economic change but often have an opinion on those subjects. Maybe they should just stick to useful topics like what colour gumboots are best!

Clearly FF want to be climate change deniers but are too scared of being ridiculed (quite rightly) for talking that stance so are using the same dirty tactics that other pressure groups use in similar situations. A classic example of this strategy is creationists who couldn’t impose their religious myths on science classes so created something called “intelligent design” instead, and when that failed they came up with the “teach the controversy” strategy even though no controversy exists.

But denial of the facts reaches a whole new level with the claim that “it makes no difference to farmers anyway”. Before I continue I should say that I know that not all farmers share this crazy view and many are probably quite embarrassed to be represented by the clowns at Federated Farmers.

I could interpret the phrase “it makes no difference to farmers anyway” two ways: the more obvious one that they think global warming won’t affect them, and the other possibility that they justy don’t care.

First, if they think they will be unaffected they should think again. If this generation isn’t affected much the next most certainly will be. There is no scientific doubt about that. And I am totally aware that in some situations in some areas farming will improve because of warming but the overall global result will be overwhelmingly bad.

Maybe they think New Zealand will get off quite lightly and that other countries will be affected more giving them an advantage in the market place. I know everyone is encouraged to think about everything as competition in a global market now, but I really hope that things haven’t really sunk to this level of immorality.

Maybe they think they wil be rescued by science and technology finding solutions to reduce the bad effects of climate change. Well if they do think that first why not say so and why not pressure the government to put more research into this area because it is badly needed.

Or maybe the second explanation is true and they just don’t care. This would certainly fit in with the modern trend for agriculture to destroy the environment it claims to respect so much. Agriculture is the biggest producer of greenhouse gas in the country and thanks to intensive dairying most of our rivers are now a mess.

Famers care about the land? Yeah, right. They are as bad as any other industry driven by profit and it’s about time they were brought under control. My first suggestion: ignore everything Federated Farmers says.

Absurdities and Atrocities

June 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Can all the adherents of a group be blamed (at least partially) for the actions of extremists in that same group? It’s a question which often comes up in connection to Islamic extremism but more recently I heard a similar idea presented blaming all of society (males in particular) for the problem of misogyny.

The person making the claim was a feminist with some rather extreme views (as many of them do) which didn’t appear to be based on much more than her own opinion, but there is undoubtedly some truth in what she was saying. Real science has shown that there is a bias against women in some situations, from men, but interestingly equally from other women. Also there are societies which are clearly misogynistic, especially those who base their laws on Islamic “values”.

In common with other recent posts I think there is a nuanced answer to this. Society in general can’t be totally blamed for misogyny, Islam and moderate Muslims can’t be entirely blamed for extremism, and the average woman who just wants a fair deal can’t be completely blamed for the damaging and unsupported opinions of extreme feminists.

But moderates in any group should take some of the blame for what extremists in their group do. For example, I think billions of Muslims who believe in an absurd, primitive religion must take some blame for the extremists who carry out atrocities in the name of that same religion. And before I’m accused of picking on Islam I would say the same applies to all religions to some extent, it just happens that Islam is the worst at this point in history.

Look at the latest horrific religion-inspired crime in Pakistan where Farzana Iqbal, a 25 year old pregnant woman, was bludgeoned to death by several people – including her female cousin, her brother, and her father – for marrying against their wishes (they wanted her to marry her cousin). And just to make it worse the man she married had already killed his first wife so he could marry her. He was not punished for that crime because his son forgave him under Pakistan’s blood-money laws. I promise, I’m not making this up. This really happened in the 21st century! It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so horrendous.

Only belief in religion can make people act so irrationally and hatefully. And the people who claim that these “honour killings” are not condoned by Islam should look more closely. The official punishment for adultery is death by stoning (not in the Qur’an but in Hadith). Of course the moderates claim that the punishment is “…death by stoning for adultery…” but “…these punishments are not really meant to be performed as much as they are meant to make these crimes hated in the eyes of the society in order to minimize their occurrence.” This sounds like a very convenient re-interpretation of the original meaning to me, but even if it wasn’t it is easy to see how the rule could be taken literally.

If the moderates simply deny that the punishment prescribed by their religion is primitive and hateful and creatively re-interpret the text then it just makes extremist interpretations easier. What they should do is say that it is primitive nonsense with no place in modern society and then they should leave the religion until such blatant problems are fixed. But here is a problem there: the penalty for apostasy is also death! (as stated in Qur’an 4.89)

At this point it may seem that the moderate believers in all areas should take part of the blame for any associated extremism. So should people like me who identify with atheism and skepticism also be blamed? Sure, if those belief systems caused any atrocities, but they don’t of course because they aren’t belief systems in the same way as Islam, Christianity, fascism, or feminism are. If anything they are belief systems based on lack of belief (maybe apart from the belief that there should be no irrational beliefs).

So all Muslims should be ashamed of their religion when they see honour killings (thousands happen every year and most aren’t punished) happening because of religious belief. The moderates are partly to blame. Need I repeat my favourite Voltaire quote again: those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.

They Never Change

June 2, 2014 Leave a comment

If you follow this blog you might notice that I start a lot of posts with the phrase “if you follow this blog…” No, actually what I was going to say is that if you follow this blog you will notice that my opponents in debates tend to be of two types: religious believers, and political conservatives or libertarians.

For example, look at my frequent debates with “richard” regarding religion, and the two recent discussions about politics/economics with “Spinning For Difficulty” and “Linuxgal”. One common trend with these discussions (or debates or arguments) is that the points go back and forwards and then my opponent just suddenly stops responding.

There could be many possible explanations for this: it could be that my opponent just gets sick of trying to convince me of the facts and gives up, or it could be that they get busy doing other stuff, or maybe they think that as the blog owner I should have the last say, or it could be that they see I’m right and they’re wrong and just run away!

Of course I would like to think that the last option is most likely, but who really knows? When I am debating at other people’s sites I like to leave a closing statement and that’s what I would prefer here too (to be fair Richard has done that a couple of times). Something like “we have a different underlying philosophy and we will never agree so let’s just finish the debate now” or “you refuse to accept the facts which I have shown you so I give up” or even “you suck… goodbye!”

Look at the debate with Linuxgal about global warming denialism for example (the blog entry titled “Be Skeptical of Yourself”, number 1655 on 2014-05-29). I asked her to view the Wikipedia page on the consensus on the cause of global warming and that’s where the debate ended, probably because continuing to deny it at that point would have looked quite unreasonable.

But should she not have said “oh, I see the consensus is stronger than I thought, maybe you are right, I won’t accept your view immediately but I will think about it some more”. Or maybe she could have stuck with the conspiracy and said “Wikipedia reflects the mainstream view and cannot be trusted”. Of course, at that point I would have referred her to Wikipedia’s sources so the conspiracy would then need to be abandoned or expanded even more.

But no, she just stopped talking and, I suspect, stopped thinking too. I would be surprised if she changed her mind at all because if she is a libertarian (as I suspect) she would be stuck with a particular narrative which is based on ideology rather than facts.

But could I be accused of the same thing? Is there anything where I have changed my mind as a result of an opponent’s well made points? Well yes, actually. Let me give some examples…

Quite a few years back I criticised the Catholic Church and commented on how it wasn’t surprising it was losing members around the world. A commenter pointed out that this wasn’t true: the Church was actually either gaining membership or staying about the same (depending on your source). I had seen diminishing support in the western world but forgotten about the gains made in places like South America and Africa. Fair enough, I admitted I was wrong and was more careful about making that sort of comment in the future.

Another bigger issue involved the historicity of Jesus. I always believed that the Jesus stories in the New Testament were basically 100% made up and that Jesus didn’t exist at all. But there is more nuance to this issue: it’s not just black and white, or existed or didn’t exist.

When a commenter suggested I look at the consensus opinions of historians on the subject I did and found that the vast majority think there was an historical Jesus. Of course most don’t believe all the supernatural nonsense that goes along with the story about what might be a real figure, and that’s where the nuance comes in.

The same applies to many historical figures: our generally accepted narrative probably involves a real person with some real history but also with a lot of grossly exaggerated and outright false additional material. Two often quoted figures in this category are Hannibal and Socrates.

So my opinion now is that the Bible stories about Jesus are probably based on a real person (or several people) but that most of the details can’t be taken seriously. That is a change of opinion which I have made and conceded in the discussion.

No one will become better informed unless they accept their errors. Libertarians and Christians both claim that they are following a true and right course for the best outcome for everyone: either through following a free and open market or by following a true and loving god. But if both of those concepts aren’t true shouldn’t they accept that and move on? It’s still possible to encourage free markets or a spiritual view of the world, but have it based on facts instead of fantasy.

But that just doesn’t seem to happen because my opponents never change.