Archive for July, 2014

More Stupid Decisions

July 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Why do so many of our politicians make so many stupid decisions? Is it because they are, themselves, stupid? I don’t think so, and in fact many seem fairly intelligent. More likely it is because they know nothing about the subject they are supposed to be in charge of, along with the obvious additional factor that many politicians are driven by the ideology of their party rather than what is genuinely the right thing to do.

One of the more obvious signs that politicians are making stupid decisions is that what they do is so often criticised by experts in the relevant area. I agree that experts aren’t always right, but compared with politicians I know which side I would be backing!

There are numerous examples of this phenomenon when any party is in power but when we have a right-leaning government in control, like we do now, the most common disagreement generally comes from education. They really just always seem to mess it up and go against the opinion of experts.

I know that ministers have experts advising them on what to do, but I would be very surprised if any adviser felt free to disagree with the clearly stated policy direction of their political masters, even if they knew it was wrong. In other words, they only tell the minister what he or she wants to hear.

To be fair, this phenomenon is common in all large organisations where managers, advisers, or consultants generally just say what the person in the next level up in the hierarchy or who is paying them wants to hear.

The justification for unpopular decisions generally involves suggesting something like the opponents just can’t cope with change, or can’t see the big picture, or are acting out of self-interest, or have a political or philosophical bias. I’m not saying that there aren’t occasions when some of these might actually have an element of truth, but most of the time they are just a convenient way to try to discredit perfectly reasonable points.

A phenomenon which often surprises me is how ministers swap their portfolios around. You would expect that to be sufficiently skilled to be a minister in one area would be impressive enough but what about these people who have had multiple successive portfolios? Were they really so skilled and expert in multiple areas or do they just know nothing about any of them?

A good example in our current government is Anne Tolley, who started with the Child, Youth and Family portfolio, then became Minster of Education, and is now Minister of Police. Is she an expert in social work, education, and law enforcement? Well no, she has no qualifications or expertise that I can establish. In fact she seems to make a total mess of everything she touches, but she does toe the party line so what else matters?

I realise that to be a leader and to be able to make the big decisions isn’t necessarily the same thing as being an expert in the area you are making the decisions about. But it would seem to me that a few relevant qualifications or experience as well as being a good leader would not be a bad thing. Unfortunately that isn’t the way the system works so I guess we had better just get used to more stupid decisions!


Killing Babies in Gaza

July 25, 2014 Leave a comment

The current violence in Gaza has resulted in a lot of quite animated discussion, supporting both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. But there has been a lot of nonsense spoken, a lot of hypocritical political posturing, and a lot of apparently fake outrage as well.

Here in New Zealand a protest during the weekend included burning and defacing of the Israeli and US flags and that seems to have caused some rather extreme reactions. I know many more nationalist cultures (the US for example) than ours take their flags very seriously but I think flag burning is a legitimate form of protest for that specific reason. Maybe drawing swastikas on the Israeli flag might be going a bit too far, but all of these things are symbolic and I think many people have over-sensationalised the whole incident.

There were members of some political parties identified at the protest, and members of the Mana party seem to have been particularly implicated in the flag burning, and although I’ve heard of no proof that it was them who did it, they probably approved. There seems to be less evidence that they approved of the swastika incident.

The reaction of various politicians was all too predictable, of course. Since the Mana party and Internet party combined and started gaining a lot of support, opposing politicians have taken any opportunity available to denigrate them, and this was no exception.

A Green MP was also at the protest and spoke to the crowd (reported to be in the hundreds). In an interview he said defacing the Israeli flag with a Swastika was inappropriate. Yeah, I can see his point, but just how inappropriate?

Winston Peters also made some incoherent commentary which I couldn’t really make sense of so I’ll move on.

A Labour representative said we shouldn’t support this sort of behaviour, and it steps over an important line, and he condemns what the protestors have done. I guess where that line is depends on the person. As I said, burning a flag is fine with me but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the swastika thing.

A final negative comment came from Pita Sharples of the Maori Party. He seemed to be particularly incensed about it, possibly because his party faces political oblivion largely because of Harawira’s activities. He said that taking sides doesn’t help to solve the problem, and that the protest is not proper NZ behaviour, it is out of place, and there are enough crises without this rubbish. He doesn’t support it, and found it disgusting, really disgusting.

He does have a point about taking sides because there is clearly blame which can be assigned to both sides of this conflict. But it is the Israelis who are responsible for the atrocities happening right now so protesting against them does seem reasonable. Sometimes we have to take sides and I’m sure Sharples has on many occasions when it suits him.

He also has a point about protests not being typical New Zealand behaviour – that is apart from pro-Maori protests which he fully supports I guess. What a hypocrite. That’s what happens when you’re in government with John Key for too long apparently.

Mana party leader, Hone Harawira defended his followers’ actions and said he was proud that they were there protesting against the actions of Israelis. When questioned he didn’t actually give full support to the burning of the flags, but he seemed to imply it was OK. And he has a point: flag burning is a valid method of protest and in the past was used to protest other issues such as the Vietnam war.

When asked whether voters will be put off by such extreme behaviour Harawira asked if burning a flag is really extreme, what about killing babies in Gaza? It’s obscene and murderous. Someone should take steps to stop those bastards from doing it. Honestly we have to look at what’s happening. The burning of a flag does not compare with whats going on in Gaza.

So maybe Hone has a fair perspective on this. He’s quite right that a few symbolic actions, even some rather offensive ones like drawing swastikas on the Israeli flag, harm no one, unlike the murder going on in Gaza.

When asked if he would be disappointed if someone burned his (Maori sovereignty) flag he said yes, but he would want to know why. Good answer.

More Thoughts on Thought

July 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Which is more amazing, the human brain or the modern computer? That is a discussion I heard in a waiting room (the source of many meaningful insights) recently. The consensus amongst those involved seemed to be that computers suck and that humans are far more impressive, but is this true?

Well yes, in many ways it is, although the way some people use that great asset (their brain) does leave me wondering about its true value.

But I think the critical point that most people seem to overlook is that although the two are superficially the same in fact they excel at quite different things. Computers are awesome at performing simple, well defined functions perfectly and at incredible speed, and the brain excels at doing poorly defined things slowly and inaccurately but massively in parallel.

So computers compute but brains think. Yes, as I concluded in my earlier blog post “Can Computers Think?” it seems to me that no current computer can think and that a new paradigm will be necessary before they can. There seems to be something fundamentally different between brains and computers – but, no, it is nothing to do with dualism or a non-physical soul – it’s just a matter of the actual operating process.

There are two ways that computers might be able to think in the future: first, they could be built on different principles to today which are more like brains; and second, they could be built in the same as they are now and that functionality could be emulated in software. Both of these techniques are being pursued and it seems like only a matter of time before one or both succeed (assuming that the old problem of defining exactly what thinking actually is can be solved).

But now I want to forget about thinking and get on to what computers are very good at: calculating…

The fastest computer can perform at 34 petaFLOPS (34 thousand trillion floating point operations per second). That is a really impressive number, but how impressive? Well imagine every human in the world (let’s say there are 7 billion) can do a floating point calculation accurately in 10 seconds (this is extremely unlikely, even with a calculator). How long would it take them to do what this one computer can do in a second? According to my calculations the answer is one and a half years.

To put it another way, the computer is 340 thousand trillion times faster than a single human. That is an impressive result, even if it involves no thought! And remember the computer guarantees an accurate answer every time. If I asked you to do a calculation like 3.7683468901364814567 x 513.76109875242345209 what do you think the chances are of you getting it right?

So computers are impressive too but in a different way. And the abilities of thinking humans and calculating computers seem to complement each other. Unfortunately for the human part of the equation it seems that computers might eventually be able to do both!

Not Even Wrong

July 19, 2014 1 comment

There’s an expression “not even wrong”, which is generally attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, and which I have heard used to describe many ideas of doubtful validity and even some of the more speculative ideas in science such as string theory.

But I think there are degrees of “not even wrong-ness”. String theory is a genuine attempt at describing reality and there are ways to decide whether it’s right or wrong even if we can’t really perform the experiments right now. So describing string theory as not even wrong is too harsh I think, although I do agree we should be careful about attaching too much significance to it until experiments supporting it can be performed.

The same could be said concerning other speculative scientific theories, such as multiverse theories. But again, these are genuine efforts at understanding the universe and they can be proved and disproved even though we don’t really have the experiments to do that yet, so I don’t think they can be described as not even wrong either.

So at this point you might be wondering what does deserve that label? Well you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I would apply it to “theories” espoused by people who are motivated by worldviews other than rational science. And yes, I mean people like my friend Richard who is clearly motivated by supporting his own particular interpretation of the Christian religion.

Recently I have been shocked to realise that he is, by any reasonable definition, a creationist! And creationism is obviously something that really is “not even wrong”. So let’s go through a few attributes of creationism which show this…

First, what community does the “theory” (I will use that word even though creationism isn’t really a theory at all) come from? Well it’s clearly not from the science community because there are just no scientific papers which support creationism. Clearly it comes from the religious community, in fact from certain religions within that community, and even then from only certain groups within that community with particularly irrational views.

So creationism fails on that count. It isn’t a genuine attempt at establishing the truth because it only exists within a population with fixed views which are based on ideology rather than an honest attempt at understanding.

Second, is creationism a well documented theory with specific, clearly defined attributes? Absolutely not. There are old Earth creationists, young Earth creationists, those who reject evolution completely and others who think God guides it, some who think the Bible is literal truth, others who think it’s a metaphor, and still others who pick and choose based on nothing more than convenience.

So any time evidence is found against creationism the supporter just switches things around a bit and says something like “no, that’s not what creationism is, serious creationists think this…” and how can you debate that because in reality creationism says both everything and nothing

Third, creationism has its own terminology which it uses to obfuscate its obvious weaknesses. For example, micro- and macro-evolution aren’t well defined scientific terms which have any specific meaning. And referring to “kinds” instead of species leaves a gap where false beliefs can escape. Specific branches of science also have their own jargon, of course, but they are well defined scientific terms which could be explained to a non-specialist if necessary.

Fourth, creationism has a very emotional appeal. What is more likely to make its followers feel good: the idea that we are the product of a caring and all powerful creator, or the idea that we are just the product of chance and natural physical processes? For someone seeking reassurance instead of truth creationism has an obvious attraction.

Fifth, what is the source for the “knowledge” behind creationism? Religious beliefs are “revealed truths” rather than scientific ideas which are the result of careful theory and experimentation. Creationism is a theory derived from an old book with absolutely no scientific credibility. Science is derived from observation of the real world, formulation of theories, careful testing of those ideas, revision of them, and in some cases completely discarding them and starting again.

Sixth, creationism is basically a “gaps” theory. Most of the arguments for creationism are arguments (almost completely without merit) against evolution, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang. Creationists seem to think that the fact that they personally find evolution hard to accept means that God (usually their specific interpretation of the many gods out there) did it instead.

Finally, creationism has no detail. Basically it can be entirely specified in one sentence: “God did it.” But when, how, why? Are there any details at all? Apart from a few contradictory personal opinions, no. It’s almost completely without any real structure, which is how it must be of course because details make theories testable.

So without even looking at any of the specific claims of creationism it can be consigned to the pile of other useless nonsense that most modern, intelligent people have already consigned to the scrap heap of superstition.

I know that some creationists (and I have debated some fairly well known ones) know they’re wrong and are just constantly lying to maintain something which they benefit from in some ways. Others are just too ignorant to understand that creationism is nonsense. And others still are the saddest cases of all: they are lying to themselves. They have genuinely convinced themselves that creationism has some merit. How can it? It’s not even wrong!

Pure Democracy

July 18, 2014 Leave a comment

In my previous blog post I discussed why I think we should vote, but at the same time noted that practically speaking it was pointless and that the democratic system is fundamentally hopelessly flawed. I also intimated that I thought there might be something better. But what could it be?

Well I think that most people agree that people should be able to decide as much as possible how to govern themselves, and that is fundamentally what democracy is all about. But there are two types of democracies: direct (also known as pure) democracies and representative democracies. The second is what all modern democratic countries use – and that is the problem.

In a representative democracy the people vote for political representatives to govern on their behalf. In a pure democracy the people themselves make the decisions.

There are clear problems with the representative type: do the representatives actually do what the voters want, or do they break their election promises; what do the voters do if they change their mind before the next election; how do ideas flow between the representatives and voters; and what do the voters do if none of the politicians represent their views?

Look at the problems with modern democracies and it is clear that they all get back to the politicians not genuinely representing the wishes of the people they represent. For example, here in New Zealand our government sold state assets even though a clear majority didn’t want them to.

But direct democracy has been impossible for mainly practical reasons. How can the people make decisions when they are required to given the amount of effort and cost involved in any sort of decision making process like a referendum? And can the people be trusted to make good decisions or is that better trusted to professional politicians?

You can probably tell by now that I think we should be moving towards a more direct democracy but how can we overcome the problems?

Well the first one can be fixed with technology. Anyone who wants to participate in decision making in a first world country would have some sort of technology which would allow that. Clearly the internet would be my first choice but even a standard phone can be used if necessary. And if even that isn’t acceptable it should be possible to set up some sort of pen and paper system at a community center like a school, post office, etc. But I would hope that with the rapidly increasing acceptance of technology that those would be mostly unnecessary.

So there could be votes set up on major issues which would effectively be binding referenda. I know the details require some work: when is an issue significant enough to require a vote because we wouldn’t want to be wasting them every minor administrative decision, how would the questions be worded to avoid bias, how would publicity (or propaganda) on votes be controlled, and how would identity control be done to avoid fraud?

None of these problems are easy but they certainly aren’t insurmountable either. The major point I am trying to make is that we should make a commitment to introduce direct democracy. Once that decision is made the details can be worked through.

But I haven’t talked about the second issue yet: can the people be trusted to make good decisions? Well I have two answers to that: first, the wisdom of crowds is a well documented phenomenon and I do think that on average the majority would make good decisions; and second, even if they make bad decisions they were still their decisions to make.

If initially people make decisions to do populist things like tax cuts they might find the end result isn’t what they wanted and a they might be more careful in the future. But I think that more balanced and overall better decisions would result eventually.

So that’s how to fix democracy: make it direct, make it pure.

Everyone Should Vote

July 15, 2014 Leave a comment

If I remember correctly I have voted in every election since I was eligible to vote, but many people say that there is little point, for a variety of reasons. Some common justifications for rejecting voting are that one vote makes little difference to the overall result, that there is very little real choice and all parties “are the same”, that voting just reinforces the existing corrupt system, and that voting in some ways links the voter with the party instead of looking at all the options available.

All of these points have some merit but there are counter-points as well.

It’s true that one vote makes no real difference but if everyone had that attitude the democratic system wouldn’t work at all, and democracy seems to be the best system we have despite it’s obvious deficiencies (as Churchill said: it’s the worst form of government, apart from all the rest).

It is true that there is usually no significant difference between established parties (and newer, less established parties. which often have more innovative policies. usually have little chance of gaining power) but it makes sense to vote based on what differences do exist. Think of it as choosing the “least bad” option rather than the best.

Voting does suport the existing system but, as I said above, it is the best we have, and until someone can think of something practical which can replace it we should probably just make the most of what we have.

Finally voting for a party does create a sort of attachment to it. If they make mistakes (or should that be when they make mistakes) the voter is probably more likely to overlook the error instead of admitting they voted for the wrong party.

An individual can effect political change far more through alternative activities, such as activism, protests, and distributing information, but those activities aren’t mutually exclusive from voting. So maybe the most rational approach is to vote and then follow that up with activism between elections.

But the modern trend is for people, especially younger people, not to vote at all. In the 2008 New Zealand general election half of eligible voters under 30 didn’t vote. In 2011 that had risen to 60%, and the overall turn-out was under 70%. Clearly there is a problem.

Or is there? An “Act on Campus” (Act is New Zealand’s libertarian party) representative made the rather cynical point that people who aren’t interested in politics and have little knowledge of the issues probably shouldn’t vote anyway. That makes sense in a way, and I have made a similar point myself on occasions.

But the problem is that people who think they know enough to vote are often sadly deluded, usually even more so than those who don’t vote. I know many conservatives for example who have the most ridiculous beliefs which shape their voting decisions. I would far rather have a young, naive person vote than some conservative moron who thinks global warming is a hoax and that we should dig up all our National Parks to mine them for coal!

So yes, I am deeply cynical of the political process and I really don’t think we have the option to get the type of government we really want, but at least if everyone votes then the errors made by the old and young, left and right, experienced and naive, might all balance out and we might get something vaguely approaching a fair result.

Maybe. But there just have to be better ways to do this, but I think I’ll leave that discussion for my next blog post.

A Blight on Society

July 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Irrationality seems to be everywhere. In many cases it’s not a big deal if someone is irrational or not, for example I don’t really care about people who have crazy religious beliefs as long as they keep it to themselves… actually, who am I kidding! I do care because I just don’t like people having silly, irrational, superstitious beliefs, even if they superficially appear to be doing no harm!

But a greater problem arises when people’s irrationality does cause direct harm, as it often does in both obvious and in more subtle ways. There are so many places where obvious harm is caused that I don’t really know where to start, but climate change denial, anti-vaccination activism, and anti-fluoridation activism would be a few good examples. And that last one is the subject for this blog entry.

The issue of fluoridation has come to the surface here in New Zealand thanks to the initially successful action taken by a group in Hamilton. They actually persuaded the local council to remove fluoride from the water supply until medical professionals – especially the local district health board – and the results of a public referendum caused that decision to be reversed.

At the end of last year the Hamilton City Council ran a referendum on community water fluoridation which lead to the result of 23,000 voting yes and 10,000 voting no (on a 70 per cent turnout of voters). But even such a clear majority doesn’t make fluoridation the right decision, and neither does the fact that the majority of medical professionals support it. But, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, that does represent really strong support and if you want to contradict it you had better have really good evidence against it. And, of course, the anti-fluoridation activists don’t. Just like the anti-vaccination people don’t, and the global warming deniers don’t, and the anti-evolution nuts don’t.

So OK, debate is good, but there has to be a point where views which contradict established science are ignored unless something new and compelling is presented. But again, that never happens, because these groups just recycle the same old discredited propaganda over and over, and that wastes time and resources and often leads to bad outcomes for the majority.

In this case the District Health Board had to spend about $50,000 supporting its side of the debate, that side being the established scientific facts. And what were they defending against? Nothing with any merit, just the same old logical fallacies and deliberately misleading evidence (such as quoting the negative effects of fluoride many orders of magnitude higher than what is actually used). In a situation where health is so underfunded it seems a clear case of negative consequences caused by taking people with irrational beliefs too seriously.

The head of the DHB, who has just left the job, has said that the anti-fluoride group will never give up because they don’t look at the evidence, they have already decided what they want to believe and cherry pick the evidence (or what might be called pseudo-evidence) to suit. Their beliefs are based on an emotional attachment rather than a rational evaluation of the facts.

So what are the facts? First, fluoride is completely safe in the doses used in water supplies, and even in much larger doses the negative effects are largely cosmetic only. Like anything else, there is a level where major health problems will occur, but that is the same with everything and those levels are never approached in actual water supplies. Second, the support for fluoride leading to much better dental health is overwhelming and few experts disagree that it is very effective. Finally, sufficient levels of fluoride can be gained from toothpaste and tablets but many people (especially those in lower socio-economic groups) don’t get sufficient doses from these sources for various reasons.

So there is no real debate here (just like there is no real debate over climate change, evolution, or vaccination) and these people should just shut the hell up and go away. They really are a blight on society. If they come up with real evidence then they should have it published in reputable medical and dental journals and have policy changed that way. Oh, they can’t get their views published? I wonder why!