Archive for January, 2015

Unhelpful, Wrong, Offensive

January 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Susan Devoy was a great squash player, there is no doubt about that, but she really sucks in the role of New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner. I mean, I don’t expect much from anyone in that position because the person is really just a meaningless figurehead in support of political correctness and reverse racism, but Devoy seems to have even less credibility than her predecessors.

She was good at hitting a small ball against a wall, but I guess having absolutely no expertise or background in politics or sociology (as far as I can see) doesn’t help with this new role.

She made a total mess of things shortly after being appointed and has mainly kept out of the headlines since (a wise strategy). But she recently commented on an issue which has a race relations aspect to it, as she should, but I think (yet again) her analysis and understanding have fallen badly short of what we should expect.

The latest issue involves a comment made by SPCA Auckland Executive Director, Bob Kerridge, that the much greater frequency of dog attacks in South Auckland has an ethnic element. If you don’t know, the SPCA is an animal welfare organisation (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and South Auckland has a high proportion of lower socio-economic residents, many of whom come from a South Pacific background.

I don’t think many people doubt that South Auckland has a much bigger problem with out of control dogs than most other areas. In the last 5 years there were 314 serious attacks there compared with just 77 in Auckland City. So South Auckland does have a problem with dogs and it also has a high Polynesian population. I agree that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two are linked, but surely it is a subject which we can discuss without just throwing out the whole idea.

Devoy has called Kerridge’s claims “unhelpful, wrong, and incredibly offensive to a lot of people.” She seems fairly certain of herself, but is she right?

If there is an ethnic component to the problem then surely pointing this out isn’t unhelpful. The first step to solving a problem is to properly and honestly identify its cause. If, after careful examination of the situation, it turns out that ethnicity isn’t an issue then that is one factor eliminated. If it is, then we can work on it. Either way, I can’t see how this is unhelpful.

And is it wrong? I think Devoy just automatically assumes that it is because there is some vague notion of racism involved. I would like to point out though that the word that was used is “ethnic” not “racial” and there is no reason to think that European New Zealanders might not be included in the same general ethnic group. Also, no one has provided the slightest evidence that it is wrong except to say there is no scientific evidence that it is right (which is fair enough – maybe a proper study could be carried out to investigate the truth).

So is it incredibly offensive? Well I think Devoy just assumes it is although many people find her inept drivel more offensive than anything Kerridge has said. If anyone finds a comment like that offensive then that is their problem, not the problem of the person making the comment.

In summary, yet again she’s talking complete politically correct, moronic garbage. The comment isn’t unhelpful, it isn’t wrong, and it shouldn’t be offensive.

To be fair, most other people with any public standing have also criticised the comment but none of them have any more credibility than Devoy. Everything just seems to involve a thoughtless, meaningless knee-jerk reaction.

Contrary to what some people may think, considering my reputation for being left-leaning politically, I hate political correctness and (you aren’t going to believe this) I think I side more with the people commenting on WhaleOil’s blog this time (yes, there’s a first time for everything).

What I really want to know is why can’t we have some meaningful debate on issues involving race, ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, and those other awkward subjects – that’s what the Race Relations Commissioner should be encouraging. If we talked about it instead of pretending to get all offended then maybe some of the problems associated with them might get fixed.

A Real Eschatology

January 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Advanced warning for UFO nuts: this story isn’t true. It’s a parable. Now, read it anyway!

For many years I have been an amateur astronomer which means I am often outside looking at the sky at night. Last night at about 11 pm local time I noticed a bright light high in the sky which rapidly descended and got brighter. Suddenly an alien spacecraft landed in my back yard. Imagine my surprise when an alien exited the craft and, using some no doubt advanced technology, began talking to me in very understandable English.

The alien, who called himself “Kang”, explained that he was from Eta Carinae and had been monitoring our planetary communications and had noticed that my blog was one of the few small pockets of rationality and truth amongst all the nonsense. That was why I had been chosen as the one person they wanted to visit on our planet.

He went on to say that he was part of a galactic anthropological study which had been watching Earth for a while and had become increasingly confused by our culture here which didn’t fit the pattern of similar civilisations on other planets. He told me that certain cultures had the potential to become irrational and dangerous and were carefully monitored and on some occasions these had to be controlled.

I was a bit concerned about exactly what form this “control” might take and was told that it often required elimination of the species causing the issues (one attribute of Kang’s species was honesty). More subtle forms of adjustment had been attempted in the past but these had failed for various reasons. It had now got to the point where the elimination option had to be considered.

They had visited me in a final attempt to understand human activities and maybe cancel the impending elimination if I could produce a sufficiently good case defending my species. This wasn’t a responsibility I particularly wanted but I didn’t see much choice except to take up the challenge so I asked for a list of the issues the alien race found so problematic.

The first problem was how we allocate resources through our economy. Kang told me that no one could understand why our leading nations spent more money on advertising sugar water beverages than they did on cancer research, considering that cancer was a leading cause of suffering. More generally he wondered why a society capable of allocating so much more resource to solving big problems instead wastes it on worthless and frivolous uses.

The second problem was the widespread irrationality shown by the majority of people on Earth. A large percentage of people are religious or follow some form of new-age nonsense and freely admit to believing in one ridiculous fairy story or another even though our society has discovered the methodology for discovering what is real and what isn’t. Worse, many of the irrational population use those crazy ideas as an excuse to harm others, in ways ranging from just trying to control how they live to the extreme of murdering them.

Next, we have allowed an economic system which originally evolved to allow our complex society to run efficiently to gain a life of its own and now society has to fit in with what the economic system demands rather than the other way around. The sort of person who does well out of this arrangement is often the most immoral and greedy rather than someone who makes a genuine contribution to society.

And as a result of short-term and local thinking we have allowed the planet to become polluted and threatened its delicate ecological balance through climate change. There are relatively simple ways to fix these problems yet no one is prepared to do anything because it doesn’t suit the powerful groupings who currently benefit from it.

We have allowed mediocrity to predominate. There is a whole class of person which performs no useful function yet controls those who genuinely try to make a positive difference. This class of bureaucrats has created a system which has become an end in itself, which ensures mediocrity prevails, and almost guarantees that genuine progress and excellence is impossible to attain.

There were a lot of other points too, which I will just briefly mention here. Our art has become stagnant, for example every new movie is just a clone of something else with a few minor elements changed. Politics has become detached from the people it is supposed to serve and even what should be the best political systems have become corrupt and controlled by powerful interest groups. Science and exploration have lost their edge and we abandon worthwhile projects because of the whim of someone who controls a totally arbitrary budget.

And so it went on. A litany of hard truths demonstrating our failings.

When he had finished I was asked for my response, but what could I say? Kang’s assessment has harsh but true. We have failed as a civilisation. We have allowed stupidity, mediocrity, and corruption to triumph. We don’t deserve to be saved.

The elimination starts tomorrow.

But is it Science?

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This year marks a hundred years since Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was released. It was his second theory of the type, the Special Theory was presented to the world ten years earlier. The other great area of science Einstein worked on was quantum physics and he actually gained his Nobel Prize in this area rather than Relativity which he is better known for.

After 1915 Einstein started work on integrating those two great theories of physics but, like everyone else, he failed to come up with a solution. So even now a hundred years later physicists are still trying to come up with a “theory of everything”.

But there are some candidates and the most prominent is String Theory. This theory posits the existence of one dimensional strings in 11 dimensional space. That sounds fairly obscure, perhaps even totally crazy, I mean what actually is 11 dimensional space anyway? But as the great physicist Niels Bohr (allegedly) said: Your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be true. Still, that is a rather trite response. The question is, is there any reality in String Theory.

One rather derogatory description of String Theory is that it is “not even wrong” meaning that it cannot be tested so it can’t be said to be right or wrong. In many ways, showing that it is wrong would be preferable because then physicist could move on to other possibilities.

But although it is difficult (some say impossible) to test in the real world, String Theory is so beautiful from a mathematical, abstract perspective (at least according to maths experts) that it is difficult to ignore. So now some theoretical physicists want to re-define science, and that’s where things get interesting…

They say that some areas of research deal with abstractions and maths which are difficult to test in the real world. And they might never be able to test some ideas, such as String Theory and the Multiverse. But they don’t care, and argue that a theory being elegant and explanatory is as important as it being testable.

Needless to say old school physicists are alarmed at this because they think that it undermines science. I would have to say that my initial reaction was to agree. But untestable theories often become testable and there are numerous examples of this in the past. And if theories are elegant and explanatory I think they still have value.

Testability has been an important attribute of science (although not quite an absolute requirement as some people like to suggest) especially since the work of philosopher Karl Popper (who worked here in New Zealand during WW2) so we shouldn’t ignore it. On the other hand, science had been proceeding for many years before Popper’s analysis and limiting it to one methodology seems unnecessary.

Maybe another suggestion made by these theorists might be preferable, that is to call this type of research something else. Maybe it is pure maths, or mathematical theoretical cosmology. Maths isn’t really science because it is not tested in the real world in the same way as science is, so maybe we should say that string theory and other speculative theories should be thought of more as maths or philosophy than science.

But in the end who cares? These are just labels and there is always overlap between areas of human endeavour anyway. There are examples of highly theoretical maths which has turned out to be useful. And we should never forget the famous concept: the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences (initially from an article published in 1960 by the physicist Eugene Wigner). For some reason maths seems to describe the real world. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why, but it’s true.

And the concept of beauty in maths is well known. I think the best expression of this might be by one of my favourite philosophers, Bertrand Russell, who said “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.”

So yes, let the abstract theories continue. Let’s not worry too much about practicality or unnecessarily limited definitions of science. Let’s pursue these ideas for their own sake. But if anyone can think of a way to test them that would be great!

Charlie Hebdo Fallout

January 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Every traumatic international event seems to lead to a lot of interesting reactions (and over-reactions) from various groups in society. Of course the Charlie Hebdo attacks are no exception. Some of the reactions are good but many are bad and I will take a look at some of them here.

First there were the protest marches around the world, and especially the big one in Paris. It’s difficult to say how much real effect these might have because the sort of person who carries out an attack like this is unlikely to look at a protest and think “Oh, I was wrong, I should respect all of these people’s dedication to free speech” or “I will never win against such strong and united opposition”. No, the attackers are more likely to feel even more isolated from western society and more persecuted and want even more to attack the opposing culture.

But the marches were more for the western world to show that it was not intimidated by terrorist activity. Of course, many in the west actually were intimidated judging by some of the responses (which I will discuss later in this post).

An interesting issue arose from the marches and it was maybe more significant than the marches themsleves. It was the intense criticism by some for the hypocrisy of many of the leaders who participated in the march. If they were they there to support freedom of speech why is that ideal so poorly accepted back in their own countries?

Daniel Wickham tweeted a brilliant series of observations regarding the hypocrisy of these leaders and that has been taken up by some mainstream media. As a side note, the way stories originate from informal internet sources, such as Twitter, is another interesting aspect of this whole issue.

Anyway, here are a few of the leaders at the protest who Wickam thought might be showing a certain amount of hypocrisy: King Abdullah of Jordan, who last year sentenced a Palestinian journalist to 15 years in prison with hard labour; Prime Minister of Davutoglu of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world; Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, whose forces killed 7 journalists in Gaza last year (second highest after Syria); Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia, which last year jailed a journalist for “insulting a government servant”; The Attorney General of the US, where police in Ferguson have recently detained and assaulted WashPost reporters; Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who had several journalists jailed for insulting him in 2013; PM Cameron of the UK, where authorities destroyed documents obtained by The Guardian and threatened prosecution; and many more.

So these politicians have really just used the protests in the most disgusting and self-centered way to try to make themselves look good while continuing to do exactly what they protesting against. OK sure, I will admit that most of them aren’t murdering those who exercise free speech (although some are) but they certainly aren’t encouraging it!

And countries with more fascist tendencies (the UK for example with its Tory government) instead of trying to manage the real problem want to restrict everyone’s privacy by banning internet communication services which use encryption. This would include WhatsApp, SnapChat, iMessage and FaceTime, in other words the programs ordinary people already want to use.

It’s hard to imagine anything more stupid, even from that government. Do they really think that banning commercial products which we all want to use will stop even moderately smart terrorists from finding other services to disguise their activities? All they will do is make it easy to spy on the average citizen. But of course, that is probably what they really want and stopping terrorists is just a convenient excuse to extend their already stifling police surveillance state.

So it seems to be the same old thing again. Yet again our leaders show they are dishonest, hypocritical liars. They show they will use any situation, however tragic, to advance their own political agendas. Meanwhile ordinary people protest because of an honest belief in principles (in most cases anyway). And some people, like Wickam, do a great job of showing us the reality behind the farce. What a world we live in!

A Fool’s Game

January 11, 2015 Leave a comment

I sometimes get comments on my blog (thanks to those who comment) from people who try to defend their religion against my attacks. That’s fair enough and I have to admit that it’s not always obvious how false some of the points these people make are until I do some extra research.

One philosophical point which is interesting is that a higher power (and by default I guess most people mean the Christian god) is needed to impose morality on us, and that because most people know what is right and wrong that there must be a higher power who has created these rules. But of course there are other ways that the rules could have arisen and I have listed these in previous discussions.

In this blog post I want to show that, even if you assume some sort of supernatural entity exists, that you still can’t rely on that entity (god, whatever) as a source of morality.

I recently listened to a podcast (you may have noticed that a large fraction of my blog posts start this way) from the excellent “Point of Inquiry” series which took the form of an interview with Ronald Lindsay who has just published a book titled “The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do” which made this point.

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments he made regarding why, even if a god did exist (and all indications are that he doesn’t), he could never be a source of morality…

First, there is Plato’s classic logical argument (I’ve seen this many times before and never heard a good response to it). In Plato’s dialog, Socrates asks if something is good (or moral) because a god says it is, or does god say it is moral because it has some intrinsic good?

For example, if we are told not to tell lies, does that mean because God tells us not to lie then it is automatically bad, or is it because lying is bad so God tells us not to do it? Either way the god figure is unnecessary or inconsistent. Here’s why…

If god approves of something because it’s good then there must be some other independent standard apart from the god which makes it good, so who cares what god thinks? We don’t need him because the independent standard tells us what is good and bad anyway.

But if there is no other source of morality apart from the god then how do we know that god is good? What he tells us could be bad and we would never know. The god could really be a deceptive demon, or an alien visitor with bad intentions, or purely imaginary and have no inherent qualifications for specifying moral standards at all.

There are also practical reasons why gods are not good sources of morality. How do we know what god really thinks? Different religions (even ones with the same god) have different rules.

For example, Muslims reserve Friday for prayer, Jews Saturday, and Christians Sunday. Jewish and Islamic rules include not eating pork but for Christians it’s OK. The Catholic version of god says contraception is evil, bust most of the rest don’t.

What practical way is there to tell which is right and which is wrong? Not only are there many conflicting texts, but each text can be interpreted many ways.

Also, why was revelation only communicated to certain prophets? Why did God choose these privileged individuals? Was it a good idea to reveal the secrets of the universe to some desert nomads in the Middle East? What was God thinking when he did that?

How would we know who has received a genuine revelation and who just has some psychiatric problem? People who claim to be prophets today are generally said to be insane or dishonest but we believe Jesus and Moses were genuine. Why? And Mohammed was confused about his first revelation until his wife convinced him it was true.

Finally, why did God’s interaction with humans stop? Christians say it ended two thousand years ago. Muslims say it didn’t, because God talked to Muhammad 1500 years ago. Mormons say Joseph Smith had revelations just 180 years ago.

Smith was told having multiple wives is OK, but when his wife had a revelation that for women having multiple husbands is also OK that was rejected. Why? It’s completely arbitrary. Mormons think their president can continue to have revelations and more recently they have changed their minds about polygamy and allowing black priests. Does that mean the original revelation was wrong?

Obviously what’s right and wrong cannot come from religion. It really is a fool’s game relying on religious texts. So where does morality come from? There is a common morality which isn’t a top down phenomenon, it is a practical solution which has evolved to allow humans to live together in peace. The Golden Rule is just common sense (and pre-dates the Bible by the way).

Poor old God. It seems like the more you think about it the more useless he gets!

Je Suis Charlie

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

This morning (actually yesterday because I was a bit slow posting this) brought the news that terrorists had murdered 12 people in an attack on French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Of course before I had even heard the details I assumed it would be some bunch of Muslim nutters, and I was right. Clearly the claim that Islam is a religion of peace is untrue, but I do have to say that it isn’t necessarily a religion of violence either.

So what is it? Well, it’s a religion of nothing, like all religions, because all religions are bullshit and can be interpreted in any way you like. If you are an angry, violent radical then a religion can multiply your murderous tendencies and give you an excuse to commit atrocities in the name of your god or prophet. And if you are an insipid, unthinking weakling then a religion can tell you what to believe, hopefully in a relatively peaceful way.

I heard a podcast today where an expert on religion challenged believers to give him any position that they thought cannot be supported by the Bible and within 24 hours he would find something in the Bible to justify that position. He didn’t mention any specific examples unfortunately because that would be interesting, but thinking about it I believe he is probably right.

One example is how the American South (the most religious part of the country) used the Bible to support slavery but many opponents of it also used the Bible to support their anti-slavery cause. How can this be? Because the Bible (along with other holy books) means nothing and everything. It is simply a collection of myths written by (mostly) anonymous authors with no greater authority or meaning.

So what have the terrorists achieved? Well the exact opposite of what they wanted to I think, because there are plans to publish a million copies of the satirical newspaper for its next run (far more than usual), and I’m guessing there might be some more material which people who take their religion far too seriously might not like.

Also, I have seen some of the cartoons they objected too and had a little laugh about them (they are more dry and disturbing observations than actually funny) which I would never have seen otherwise. So I, and millions of others, have seen the anti-Muslim material which we would have ignored otherwise.

And most of the world is united against the terrorists – with a few interesting exceptions which I might blog about in future. Muslim moderates say they condemn this sort of terrorist act but by their support of a primitive belief system they in some ways encourage them.

One thing’s for sure: this sort of atrocity shows what happens when religion gets out of control (Christianity was just as bad – maybe worse – when it had political control in the past). This should be an example of how dangerous irrational beliefs of all types can become and how we need to continue to suppress them whenever we can.

Open to Criticism

January 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Everyone should be open to accepting criticism and fairly examining their ideas and policies, especially those who have the most power and the greatest ability to force their ideas on others. Obvious examples of this would be politicians, senior management in businesses, and police. Unfortunately these are the exact groups who often seem to be immune to criticism. Or maybe I should say they are criticised plenty but take no notice, most likely simply because of an arrogant and overinflated sense of their own importance.

Right, with that little rant (I might as well get 2015 off to a good start) out of the way, what exactly am I talking about? In this case the New Zealand police who seem to be getting increasingly out of control with each passing year. I know that our police are still a lot better than most others, but they are still pretty bad!

To be more specific still, this post relates to the result of the police’s latest holiday period anti-speeding campaign where they said they would ticket anyone doing just 4 kilometers per hour (2.5 mph) [correction: that was last year, this year it was zero tolerance] over the speed limit. I’m not sure how rigorously they pursued that (I drove at well over the speed limit at all times but was never caught) but whatever they did, it didn’t work because our holiday road toll is over twice what it was last year when a greater margin was allowed.

Of course, police became all defensive and criticised their critics for using a “tragic” situation for political purposes. Well, you know, this is a political issue and surely tragedies should be paid attention to. Surely the police can admit this just hasn’t worked and maybe they should look at other options.

I personally think it’s the same lazy, ignorant thinking I see from many people in positions of authority. They can’t be bothered (or don’t have the ability or intelligence) to figure out the real problems and solve them, so they apply an easy to manage, simplistic approach which affects the innocent more than the guilty and often doesn’t achieve what it was supposed to anyway.

When there is a low road toll the police are the first to congratulate themselves but when there is a higher one, like this year, suddenly it’s not their fault. Well they can’t have it both ways. Maybe the police commissioner should accept that the extra people who have died this year are because of his incompetence and offer his resignation now.

I’m not totally serious about that last suggestion – if only because he would just be replaced with some other bureaucrat equally bereft of original ideas anyway – but also because he’s not really to blame. Traffic deaths fluctuate over time due to simple statistical phenomena and other uncontrollable reasons. A good or bad result has probably very little to do with what the police are doing and is more to do with weather, public attitudes, the safety of modern cars, better roads, and many other factors.

But the police should acknowledge this and just admit that their silly zero tolerance nonsense should stop immediately. And no, that’s not just because I like to travel a bit faster than the speed limit, it’s because it’s the correct and honest thing to do.