Archive for May, 2017

Islam Again, Again

May 31, 2017 7 comments

I said in my last post that I had some thoughts on terrorism and its causes, mainly after thinking about the Manchester attack. I think the there are two big problems which have lead to poor analysis of the situation: first, people tend to form conclusions based on their existing political beliefs instead of trying to reach an unbiased verdict; and second, they tend to look at things too simplistically instead of accepting that there is never just one cause for a complex social phenomenon.

In the last post I briefly mentioned my initial reaction when I first heard about the attacks. That was that it was probably “Islam again”. By that I meant that Islamic beliefs were likely to be an important part of the motivation for the attack. And that was clearly the case. But what I didn’t mean was that Islam was the only cause or that all Muslims should share equal blame.

Another important point is that, no matter how evil these attacks are, they really don’t represent a great threat when looked at statistically. There are plenty of stats out there to show this.

For example, the Washington Post reported that on the day that 130 people died because of the Paris terrorist attacks, roughly three times that number of French citizens died from cancer. They also say that in the US more people have been killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorist activity since 9/11.

Those numbers should be accepted but that doesn’t mean that taking terrorism seriously isn’t important. It could be that because terrorism is treated as if it is far more dangerous than it really is that it has been kept under control to some extent. And disease, road deaths, and work related accidents are just an unfortunate side effect of people living their lives. Terrorism is far more malicious and deliberate and has no positive side making the losses a bit more tolerable.

So a death from a road accident and a death as a result of a suicide bomber aren’t really equivalent. People shouldn’t be scared of terrorism, but they shouldn’t become complacent and they should make their abhorrence of it clear even if they are unlikely to be affected by it directly.

I think I have made a case for treating terrorism and terrorists with the utmost contempt, what about the more difficult question of what or who to blame? Is Islam actually the problem?

Well yes and no. As I said above, all complex political or social issues have multiple causes. But the statistics make it very clear that Islam is a major factor. Find a list of terrorist attacks and you will see that the vast majority would be carried out by Islamic groups or individuals motivated by Islam. This cannot be denied, and I don’t think it can be denied that Islam is one of the most significant causes of terrorism.

People will say Islam is a religion of peace, of course, but that has become more a knee-jerk reaction than a statement which is the result of serious and considered thought. I don’t think it is a religon of peace at all. In fact, there are many reasons to think that it is one of the more violent religions. It’s true that most Muslims don’t act on these more aggressive aspects of their faith, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there and that they don’t encourage people with a predisposition to extremism.

Another excuse offered by Muslim apologists is that many of the problems in the Islamic world are caused by the unwanted meddling of the West, especially the US. I totally agree. I think US foreign policy is one of the biggest causes of political instability around the world today. But does the fact that a major power interfered with the politics of your country give you the right to kill innocent children at a pop concert in a different country? Only an incredibly sick-minded person whose human decency has been warped by a vile ideology could believe that.

Not many people would be prepared to sacrifice their own life and take those of many innocent people without some incredibly powerful ideology being involved. No one is going to strap on a suicide vest after considering a problem rationally. To do that takes something like strong political views… or religion, of course. The problem is currently Islam, but any Christian who thinks they can take the high moral ground on this should have a look at the history of their own faith and maybe reconsider that thought.

So was it Islam again? Yes it was, but it was also political frustration caused by western interference again, and it was many other things again too. Should there be greater scrutiny of Muslims because of this sort of event? Yes, but it should be in proportion to the potential threat.

These things are nuanced, and neither side: neither the people who always spring to Islam’s defence, nor those who automatically condemn all Muslims, are right. The truth is somewhere in between. Sure, it was Islam again and it will continue to be Islam again, but what our response should be to that fact is the real issue.

Shouting Fire!

May 25, 2017 2 comments

First, I want to make a quick comment about the big news from yesterday: the terrorist attack in Manchester. As soon as it was reported I commented “Islam again?” and I was right, it was Islam again, and it almost always is. I will write a bit more about this in a future post but I just needed to say something now because so many people are defending Islam and I think that defence is often taken too far.

But the main subject of this post is freedom of speech, and what limitations should be put on it. This subject arose after a prominent New Zealand doctor disrupted a screening of the anti-vaccination film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe”. He told the audience the arguments behind the film were “based on lies and fraudulent information that harms children”.

He’s right, of course, but did he have the right to do that? I should note that, as far as I can tell, the people were not prevented from watching the film, they were just warned about it first. But they were warned in a rather extreme way, including (for some bizarre reason) a haka (a traditional Maori war-dance or challenge).

So first, is there any good evidence that vaccination either doesn’t work or is dangerous? Well, like all medical interventions, there are some risks and it might not be effective in a small number of cases, but generally it is both safe and effective. Well respected organisations like the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, and the Center for Disease Control have estimated that millions of people have been saved from death and disease by vaccinations.

Against this are a small number of poorly designed studies, some of them discredited and retracted, and contrary beliefs largely based on emotional arguments, personal opinions, anecdotes, and broad claims backed up with little specific evidence.

It’s possible that some vaccines have unknown hazards and it’s even possible that some might not be as effective as currently believed, but the only rational conclusion possible at this time is that vaccination is a valuable disease prevention technique.

So it is reasonable to say that vaccination works and is safe to the extent that any small risks are easily compensated for by the potential benefits.

But the second question is less straightforward. Is it OK to try to stop people from exercising their right to freedom of opinion? Should the “authorities” prevent films like this one from being shown? And should opponents of the film’s message be allowed to present their opinions to an audience who really don’t want to hear it?

I believe in personal freedom of expression but I think everyone would recognise there must be limits to this. This is the old classic question: is it OK to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire? If you have freedom of expression then why not? Does that freedom trump the risk of people being injured when trying to exit the theatre?

I suspect that most people, including those at the screening of “Vaxxed”, would say that falsely shouting fire is a bad thing and that’s probably what they thought the doctor was metaphorically doing. But, as I indicated above, he was really doing the equivalent of shouting “fire” when there really was a fire. Because, if the movie persuades parents not to vaccinate their kids in large numbers it could result in new epidemics of disease which would cause far more deaths than those likely to occur in a theatre fire.

Another case could be made to say that the doctor was not inhibiting freedom of expression because in offering his own opinion he was actually enhancing that expression. If presenting one side of the “controversy” (note that there is no real controversy) is seen as giving freedom of expression then surely presenting the other side as well just improves that. Anti-vaccination protestors seem to think it is their right to turn up at pro-vaccination events so what’s wrong with the opposite scenario?

Finally, do people have the right to be ignorant? I would say no, but even if they do, do they have the right to inflict their ignorant views, and the negative consequences of those views, onto others? Many of those people who go to “Vaxxed” will be parents and some of those will fail to vaccinate their kids as a consequence. That’s causing potential suffering to another person because they’re too naive to see through anti-vaccination propaganda themselves.

It seems to me the doctor was a hero in many ways. Maybe he got a little bit too confrontational in the way he did what he did, but was he right to do it? I think so.

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL ( on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

I’m a Troll

May 19, 2017 Leave a comment

In the old Norwegian fairy tale, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the three goats must try to cross a bridge to get to richer meadows, but are challenged by a fearsome and hideous troll. This guy is both territorial and aggressive, and has a habit of trying to eat anything that dares to cross the bridge.

Is this a good metaphor for our friend, the internet troll? Maybe it is. But the word “troll” is another one on my list of words I try to avoid using, and my reader, Derek Ramsey, indicated he would like to see my reasons why, probably because he (along with many others) thinks I might indulge in a certain amount of trolling activity myself!

Here’s the definition of an internet troll, from Wikipedia: “…a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community … with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion often for the troll’s amusement.”

Having read this I have to admit that I do sometimes stir up trouble just for the fun of it. But even then I do have a higher purpose, and I would like to think that the majority of the time I am accused of “trolling” I am actually trying to make people think in a different way, or trying to make people question their fundamental beliefs, or even offering my opinion with the possibility that it will be proved wrong.

So trolling is more a matter of intent rather than form, and it is just too easy for people with unpopular or alternative views to be dismissed by the majority because they are “just a troll”.

The first time I was excluded from an on-line community due to “excess trolling” was many years ago when I used to offer “alternative commentary” on a site called “GodTube” (I know it looks like I made that up, but it is a real site). This site offers “Christian, funny, inspirational, music, ministry, educational, cute and videos” with a religious perspective.

Of course, that is fine and people are welcome to have communities which represent their interests, but I also think that the internet makes it too easy to enter an “echo chamber” of like-minded people who exclusively parrot the standard dogma of the group and prevent a wider perspective from emerging.

And then there are the blatant lies. In particular I found a lot of anti-science and anti-atheism material on GodTube that I felt I should offer an alternative perspective on. I knew this would cause some of the effects described in the definition of a troll. I knew it would sow discord, I knew it would upset people, I knew it was inflammatory, and I knew it would likely evoke an emotional response and disrupt normal, on-topic discussion.

And, to be honest, it was to a certain extent, for my own amusement.

Hey, now that I read all that I realise that I am a troll! But that is the whole point. In that situation I don’t think that being a troll was bad, and that’s why I don’t like the word.

After many instances of challenging videos on GodTube which rejected evolution, tried to show that the Christian god was supported by real evidence, pretended that events like the Flood, Exodus, etc were actually real, and generally denigrated atheism and science, I was kicked off the community. I could have created a new account and carried on but I thought a break would be good and I moved onto other projects. After all, a troll’s work is never done!

More recently I have been un-friended on Facebook for daring to challenge left-wing ideology which I believe is not based on reality. Since I clearly identify with the political left myself this might seem strange, but I think it is even more important that the “team” I support is credible than that the “other team” is. After all, I can just laugh at the idiotic ideas held by conservatives or fundamentalist Christians, but when a similar criticism could be applied to those I would normally support it becomes difficult.

So when a whole bunch of “lefties” are talking about how dreadful society is as a result of another post, based on absolutely zero real-world evidence, about misogyny, I naturally like to point out that they are doing exactly what they accuse conservatives of, and exactly what turns moderates away from their perspective: they are unquestioningly accepting ideology as fact.

It could very well be that the phenomenon is real, but simple-minded support for a silly political doctrine in an echo chamber of far-left political correctness is no proof, and is certainly no way to approach a problem in an honest way.

And that’s where a bit of what could be uncharitably called trolling or more positively called challenging ideas is called for. And that’s what I do. If people don’t like it they can point out where I am wrong (and that has happened on rare occasions) or they can just shut me down because I’m a “troll”. But how does that second approach achieve anything worthwhile?

It doesn’t, and that’s why we need people to challenge established beliefs. We don’t need this in an extreme or dishonest form such as that practiced by a genuine troll, but it is hard to say which is which – when does a fair challenge to majority beliefs become trolling? It’s too hard to say, so the idea of trolling itself is best avoided.

We don’t need to ban the troll, we need to ban the excuse of ignoring someone by labelling them a troll. That’s my point. Who disagrees with that?

Easily Offended

May 17, 2017 2 comments

Language constantly evolves, and words inevitably change their meanings over time. Sometimes this causes no real problems as people adapt to the new meanings, but other times a word might get used in such a confusing context, or with such poor intent, that it is better not to be used at all.

When I say “with such poor intent” above I mean that words are used by some people to shut down a discussion, or to disguise a real issue, instead of engaging in honest debate.

Of course the preceding paragraphs are to introduce the subject of my favourite words which have become meaningless through over-use or dishonest use, and without further ado, here they are…

Number one: offensive. I reject the use of the word offensive because it implies there is some fundamental attribute of a statement or action which makes it offensive. I would say a better way to look at the phenomenon is to say “I am offended”. That means it is the person making the claim who is the originator of the offence, not the object it is being aimed at.

For example, if I say (as Stephen Fry did) that God is “stupid” and an “utter maniac” then I might expect some religious people (like some bishops in the UK) to be offended. But the statement itself isn’t inherently offensive. I for one, would say it is letting God off fairly lightly! And, more seriously, I think it provides an interesting starting point for a discussion of the classic theological problem of evil.

So if the bishops said “I am offended” instead of “that is offensive” we could get onto a useful discussion about why they are offended. Is it because the problem of evil has no viable answer, even after thousands of years of discussion? Is it because they want to shut down the discussion to avoid embarrassing revelations on the nature of their theological beliefs? We will never know because they refuse to discuss comments which they claim are naturally inherently offensive.

Even in situations where the implication of a comment against me was mildly insulting I would never use the “offence defence”. For example, if someone said to me “you atheists just want to avoid your moral responsibility to God” I could say “that’s offensive” and demand an apology, or I could be more honest and explain why that makes no sense.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to religion, of course. Any criticism that a person or group wants to avoid can be labelled offensive and can therefore be avoided. I see it a lot in sensitive political situations, especially those involving race and gender. There are some comments which should be perfectly reasonable but could almost be guaranteed to illicit either real or feigned offence by both the target of the comment, and maybe even more frequently, by people apparently not directly affected but still prepared to let their moral outrage be shown.

The most egregious part of this phenomenon is not the way it punishes transgressors, but the way it inhibits people presenting dissenting opinions in the first place. If a person wants to make a perfectly reasonable point but knows that type of point has been labelled as “offensive” in the past then he might not make the point, either because it might be seen as anti-social or even because there might be consequences such as being forced out of a discussion, being forced to apologise, or even being forced to resign from a job.

So I believe phrases like “that is offensive” are best not used at all. People should take ownership of their opinions and admit that the offense arises from them. They should say “I am offended” instead and expect to have to explain why.

I gave a few examples (some quite humorous) of use of offense in a cynical context in a post called “That’s Offensive!” from 2015-11-30. Have a look at that for some further comments on this idea.

At this point it seems I have written enough on my first word alone to make a long enough blog post. The other words to avoid will need to wait for a future post. To give my readers an idea of what to expect, here are the other words I want to cover: inappropriate, racist, misogynist, privilege, dictatorship, troll, and literally.

Do you use any of these words? Do you think your use of them is justified? If you do, you should read the future posts or comment on this one.

The Law’s a Joke

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

They say that any news is good news, so New Zealanders should be pretty happy with all the exposure this country is getting in the US at the moment, mainly thanks to it being the subject of ridicule by comedian, John Oliver.

I’m not complaining here because I don’t think the material is nasty and it is presented with good humour. In many ways it makes New Zealand look a bit wacky and maybe just a bit less boring than it might be otherwise. Also, after looking at the news today, I can see Oliver’s point – there really is some pretty silly stuff going on here.

So here’s a list of some of the better stories coming out of New Zealand in recent times: our prime minister’s (at the time) weird and creepy obsession with pony tails; the famous “dildo-gate” event where politician Steve Joyce was hit in the face by a sex toy; a really embarrassing court case involving the illicit sexual fantasies of conservative party leader, Colin Craig; and the National Party’s use of an alleged rip-off of Eminem’s song, Lose Yourself, in its election campaigning.

Maybe the only country that should be even more embarrassed about the frivolous use of its legal system is Ireland, where Stephen Fry’s alleged blasphemy is being investigated by police (to be fair, I should say that the investigation was terminated shortly after I wrote this because of “an insufficient number of outraged people”).

As I said above, I do think a lot of this stuff is just amusing and I don’t take it too seriously. I was really impressed at the good natured way Joyce accepted the indignity of the “attack” on him, for example.

But it is pretty ridiculous how much effort is going into some of these court cases (especially the campaign song copyright case, and the Colin Craig defamation case against right-wing blogger Cameron Slater). Considering how much money is being spent on these and how many more important cases are currently waiting to proceed, it is again rather embarrassing how our legal system is being made to look like a bit of a joke.

But I have always considered our so-called “justice system” a joke, or to use the more common phrase: the law is an ass. By the way, that phrase goes back to 1653 where it was used in a publication in England. The word “ass” was used to indicate that the law is obstinate and inflexible like an ass (or donkey) has the reputation of being.

We are all expected to follow the law, and ignorance is no excuse. But even the prime minister admitted that he was unaware of our blasphemy laws, when the subject arose after the situation in Ireland was discussed. Also, our attorney-general admitted to enjoying a good bit of blasphemy on occasion. So the country’s chief legal officer enjoys breaking the law, apparently. I guess this is is another aspect of its asinine nature.

In this post I have concentrated only on how stupid the law is, but if that was it’s only fault I would be quite happy. The real problem is a much darker one. That is how unfair, inconsistent, incomprehensible, and inflexible the law is. We really have got ourselves stuck in a corner where everyone is more worried about what is legal rather than what is right.

Dilbert Cartoons

May 9, 2017 Leave a comment

I have a Dilbert cartoon which has the following dialog: Dilbert’s manager says “What does MFU2 mean on your timeline?”, Dilbert replies “That’s management foul-up number two. It usually happens around the third week.”, the manager responds “We don’t anticipate any management mistakes.”, Dilbert answers “That’s MFU1.”

Like many Dilbert cartoons it is amusing because it is so often true. Not only do we know this through personal experience, but it is confirmed by research in psychology, especially in the famous Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Basically, not only are many people incompetent, but they are too incompetent to even realise how incompetent they actually are! It’s fine for people to not be perfect, because that is just reality, but it’s important that people understand their deficiencies, and when that doesn’t happen big problems are the usual result.

I sometimes put it this way: it’s OK to be ignorant (we all are to some extent), and it’s OK to be arrogant (that can be justified for sufficiently skilled people), but the combination of ignorance and arrogance is the problem.

I am discussing this here because I recently heard a podcast which included an interview with Professor David Dunning himself, one of the people who introduced the effect. I have discussed the Dunning-Kruger Effect before, in “They Are Idiots” from 2016-05-11 and “Peter, Dunning, and Dilbert” from 2012-02-16, so it is one of my favourite cognitive psychology phenomena. But here I want to concentrate on a slightly different aspect of the subject: how to minimise it.

In summary, the way to minimise the errors our “leaders” are likely to make is to introduce a “devil’s advocate”. I don’t think this is totally true because a traditional devil’s advocate usually argues against a point whether they genuinely believe what they are saying or not. I would suggest that a person who really believes something contrary to the leadership would be a better choice.

But, either way, most people’s experience would indicate the opposite usually happens. Leadership is rarely open-minded enough to be amenable to opposition to their ideas. Generally contrarians are shut-down before they can expose any glaring deficiencies in the accepted wisdom. And this is a conscious strategy which I would have to interpret as leaders knowing they are potentially wrong but being determined to proceed with their preferred path anyway.

So why are so many people surprised when executive decisions end up being so bad, if the system we have in place virtually guarantees that they will be?

Maybe it is because people don’t don’t listen to as many podcasts which feature discussions of cognitive psychology, especially common cognitive biases and logical fallacies, as I do!

Or maybe it’s that I am the one who is deluded and everything is fine… but seriously… I honestly think that is unlikely because what I see happening in society matches what expert psychologists and other researchers are reporting after doing real empirical research.

Another point that Dunning mentioned in the interview is that it is difficult to self-evaluate. A better way to get a true perspective on your abilities is through an honest appraisal by your peers. The problem is that this almost never happens. People tend to form self-reinforcing cliques and groups. A politician will get positive feedback from other members of his party no matter how bad he is, and will get bad feedback from opposing politicians no matter how good he is.

And the same applies other types of groups such as management sections of large organisations. There is just a constant commitment to members of the group because any show of doubt over the group’s competence to exercise authority might lead to its collapse.

It’s possible that without these groupings having this authority the whole of society might collapse after some sort of dysfunctional anarchy takes over. But it’s also possible that a better way to run the world might be possible. The first step is to admit there is a problem.

So the answer is for people to admit the existence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and to admit that they are often wrong. Maybe a good starting point would be to read (and understand) more Dilbert cartoons!