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Ignorant, and Proud of It

July 7, 2017 Leave a comment

I understand how people want to give other people – especially those from groups which might be seen as being disadvantaged – a bit of extra help and support. These people usually mean well and just want everyone to have a fair deal. And they often see anyone who doesn’t share that view as being ignorant, bigoted, or self-serving, and sometimes they are right.

But equally they should be open to alternative ideas and should have the humility to listen to opposing views, and perhaps modify their own ideas slightly as a result. After all, especially in the realm of social issues and politics, it is very easy to get stuck in a mindset which is never challenged by your usual friends. Contrary views should be welcomed and fairly considered instead of being dismissed with no thought.

But that’s not usually how things work, as illustrated by a “conversation” I had recently where my points – which were contrary to the other participants in the discussion – were just ignored without any appraisal at all.

The discussion was over a flyer produced by a New Zealand group, the Hobson’s Pledge Trust, which encouraged making political decisions (including voting for parties supporting their ideas) leading to equal rights for all groups, no matter what their ethnicity or origin.

I ended up debating the person (let’s call her “L”) who posted on Facebook regarding her distaste for the flyer. Here are the first few comments in that debate…

L: As Tama Waititi (NZ actor/director) says every bit of racism helps and this political offering delivered in our letter box today by Hobson pledge has a huge amount of it. Feel free to contact them!

Me: Is there anything untrue in that material?

L: Ahh Owen I will answer. Yes everything because it is written from an ignorant and racist perspective perpetuating hate and ignorance.

Me: I think it’s dangerous closing down a particular political view, whatever we think of it, by just applying a label like “racist”.

L: Nope very happy to :*)

Me: You should have a think about that.

L: Owen Baxter I have and very comfy thanks. :)

Me: OK. That’s your view. Just accept that other people have different views which can be justified at least as well as yours.

Before I comment I do need to say that I am no great supporter of the people behind Hobson’s Pledge. However, like all groups, I think they make some good points, and even if they didn’t, the correct response is to show that they are wrong, not to just refuse to even engage in discussing a view which has a fairly high level of support.

If you look at the discussion above you will notice how there is no attempt at all to answer my initial question on whether there is anything untrue in the material. More importantly, notice how L admits to wanting to close down the debate by simply applying a label with no justification.

This is simple ignorance, and ignorance is bad in itself, of course, but L seems to be proud of it! And to show now she is not alone, here are a few other comments which I collected from various sources on this topic…

One person said “I’m burning it without reading it”. Well, that’s very mature and fair, isn’t it. What are they scared of? Maybe, that it might make sense and cause them to change their mind. We couldn’t have that, could we? It’s better just to stay ignorant.

Another commented “We cannot allow it to happen because of the violent reaction to the abolition of affirmative action.” So this sounds like, if affirmative action (which is just another way of saying some groups, based on race, are given special privileges) is removed there will be a violent response. This isn’t an opinion based on right and wrong, just a threat of violence if a particular political view isn’t followed.

Here’s another, somewhat more reasonable, comment: “voters have moved on from the ‘negative sentiment’ of Hobson’s Pledge.” There might be some truth in this, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth taking into consideration. I also suspect there is a lot more support for it by the “silent majority” who are too scared to enter into any discussion on the topic.

And, “people, including politicians, are appalled by this racist leaflet.” OK, but don’t just be appalled, tell us why you are appalled – is it wrong? Is it immoral in some way? And please, try to avoid applying that label “racist”. It really has got to the point where all it really means is “someone who disagrees with me on a matter involving race politics”.

Finally, it was said that the Human Rights Commission has received complaints. But, of course, none of those complaints were upheld which seems to indicate that the flyer was not racist according to them.

I have made several posts in the last year describing how I am moving away from being identified with traditional left views. This is part of the reason why. It seems that the left are just as bad as the right on most issues now. They are just as self-righteous, just as inflexible, just as ignorant, and just as wrong.

Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!

Making Us Smart

June 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Many people think the internet is making us dumb. They think we don’t use our memory any more because all the information we need is on the web in places like Wikipedia. They think we don’t get exposed to a variety of ideas because we only visit places which already hold the same views as we do. And they think we spend too much time on social media discussing what we had for breakfast.

Is any of this stuff true? Well, in some cases it is. Some people live very superficial lives in the virtual world but I suspect those same people are just naturally superficial and would act exactly the same way in the real world.

For example, very few people, before the internet became popular, remembered a lot of facts. Back then, some people owned the print version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and presumably these were people who valued knowledge because the print version wasn’t cheap!

But a survey run by the company found that the average owner only used that reference once per year. If they only referred to an encyclopedia once a year it doesn’t give them much to remember really, does it?

Today I probably refer to Wikipedia multiple times per day. Sure I don’t remember many of the details of what I have read, but I do tend to get a good overview of the subject I am researching or get a specific fact for a specific purpose.

And finding a subject in Wikipedia is super-easy. Generally it only takes a few seconds, compared with much longer looking in an index, choosing the right volume, and finding the correct page of a print encyclopedia.

Plus Wikipedia has easy to use linking between subjects. Often a search for one subject leads down a long and interesting path to other, related topics which I might never learn about otherwise.

Finally, it is always up to date. The print version was usually years old but I have found information in Wikipedia which refers to an event which happened just hours before I looked.

So it seems to me that we have a far richer and more accessible information source now than we have ever had in the past. I agree that Wikipedia is susceptible to a certain extent to false or biased information but how often does that really happen? Very rarely in my experience, and a survey done a few years back indicated the number of errors in Wikipedia was fairly similar to Brittanica (which is also a web-based source now, anyway).

Do we find ourselves mis-remembering details or completely forgetting something we have just seen on the internet? Sure, but that isn’t much to do with the source. It’s because the human brain is not a very good memory device. If it was true that we are remembering less (and I don’t think it is) that might even be a good thing because it means we have to get our information from a reliable source instead!

And it’s not even that this is a new thing. Warnings about how new technologies are going to make us dumb go back many years. A similar argument was made when mass production of books became possible. Few people would agree with that argument now and few people will agree with it being applied to the internet in future.

What about the variety of ideas issue? Well people who only interact with sources that tell them what they want to believe on-line would very likely do the same thing off-line.

If someone is a fundamentalist Christian, for example, they are very unlikely to be in many situations where they will be exposed to views of atheists or Muslims. They just wouldn’t spend much time with people like that.

In fact, again there might be a greater chance to be exposed to a wider variety of views on-line, although I do agree that the echo-chambers of like-minded opinion like Facebook and other sites often tend to be is a problem.

And a similar argument applies to the presumption that most discussion on-line is trivial. I often hear people say something like “I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what someone had for breakfast”. When I ask how much time they have spent on Twitter I am not surprised to hear that it is usually zero.

Just to give a better idea of what value can come from social media, here is the topic of the top few entries in my current Twitter feed…

I learned that helium is the only element that was discovered in space before found on earth. (I already knew that because I am an amateur astronomer, but it is an interesting fact, anyway).

New Scientist reported that the ozone layer recovery will be delayed by chemical leaks (and it had a link if I want details).

ZDNet (a computer news and information site) tweeted the title of an article: “Why I’m still surprised the iPhone didn’t die.” (and again there was a link to the article).

New Scientist also tweeted that a study showed that “Urban house finches use fibres from cigarette butts in their nests to deter parasites” (where else would you get such valuable insights!)

Guardian Science reported that “scientists explain rare phenomenon of ‘nocturnal sun'” (I’ll probably read that one later).

ZDNet reported the latest malware problem with the headline “A massive cyberattack is hitting organisations around the world” (I had already read that article)

Oxford dictionaries tweeted a link to an article about “33 incredible words ending in -ible and -able” (I’ll read that and add it to my interesting English words list).

The Onion (a satirical on-line news site) tweeted a very useful article on “Tips For Choosing The Right Pet” including advice such as “Consider a rabbit for a cuddly, low cost pet you can test your shampoo on”.

Friedrice Nietzsche tweeted “five easy pentacles” (yes, I doubt this person is related to the real Nietzsche, and I also have no idea what it means).

Greenpeace NZ linked to an article “Read the new report into how intensive livestock farming could be endangering our health” (with a link to the report).

Otago Philosophy tweeted that “@Otago philosopher @jamesmaclaurin taking part in the Driverless Future panel session at the Institute of Public Works Engineers Conference” (with a link).

I don’t see a lot of trivial drivel about breakfast there. And where else would I get such an amazing collection of interesting stuff? Sure, I get that because I chose to follow people/organisations like science magazines, philosophers, and computer news sources, but there is clearly nothing inherently useless about Twitter.

So is the internet making us dumb? Well, like any tool or source, if someone is determined to be misinformed and ignorant the internet can certainly help, but it’s also the greatest invention of modern times, the greatest repository of information humanity has ever had, and something that, when treated with appropriate respect, will make you really smart, not dumb!

Criticise the Idea

June 22, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of my recent blog posts and I have come to realise that they could be interpreted as me having a rather simplistic view of some of the topics I have discussed, especially in relation to beliefs I disapprove of, like capitalism and Islam.

There are two major nuances regarding my thoughts on these topics: first, nothing is ever entirely bad, or entirely good; and second, even if I think the belief is wrong that doesn’t mean I condemn all of the people who practice that belief.

So the anti-capitalism rant in my previous post wasn’t meant to suggest that all business owners or other people who participate in the capitalist system (which is all of us to some extent) are bad. What I meant is that capitalism has a lot of negative consequences, along with some good ones, and that I believe that, on balance, we could do a lot better.

There are a lot of greedy, self-centered, sociopaths who are deeply involved in capitalism, but there are many reasonable, hard-working, moral people too. The problem is that the core tenets of capitalism include pursuit of maximum profit, winning against competition, and minimising non-monetary elements of doing business, and by systematising and normalising what I (and a lot of other people) see as negative attributes it encourages anyone who has an existing propensity towards them.

So if a person has a natural tendency towards what otherwise might be thought of as anti-social behaviours, like greed, then that will be rewarded by participating in a capitalist system. That person will do well in such a system where a more generous, sharing person might fail.

There are some possible good outcomes of being greedy too. It might drive a person towards creating a bigger, more efficient company which might employ a lot of people or produce products more effectively, for example.

As I said, it’s about balance and I think that on balance we could do better than capitalism. But that’s not to denigrate the efforts of the minority of participants who used it for positive ends. There are a few obvious, high-profile examples, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but I’m sure there are many others we never hear about, as well.

And exactly the same argument applies to Islam. Many Muslims are great people but I believe that the underlying philosophy of Islam (and most other religions) leads to many negative consequences.

Religions tend to encourage people to believe their core dogmas and not look for anything better. It makes them think they already know everything worth knowing. Humanity has progressed through exactly the opposite attitude to this.

And they tend to make their followers feel like an “in-group” and everyone else is in some way inferior because they don’t share the special knowledge pertaining to that religion’s beliefs. Surely, we don’t need any more reasons to separate people into competing cliques than what we already have.

And they discourage free thought. Religions tend to tell people the facts are all recorded in a holy book or in the beliefs of religious leaders. If someone believes that why would they ever question potentially dangerous or incorrect beliefs? There’s a very good reason the metaphor of sheep is often used to describe religious followers.

So again there are plenty of religious people who haven’t fallen into any of the traps I described above, but undoubtedly religions make that far more likely, simply because of their underlying nature.

In summary, nothing is all bad or all good, but that doesn’t mean that criticising things that are bad on balance can’t be justified. And criticism of an idea does not automatically equate to criticism of people who hold that idea, but if the person is implicated in by an idea they hold that is just an unfortunate side effect. I always try (but don’t always succeed) to criticise the idea, not the person.

More Red Tape

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Controversial commentator, George Monbiot, thinks the disastrous fire in the London tower block serves as a warning about removing “red tape” from society. He sees this as a consequence of the neo-liberal agenda followed by successive governments – which would traditionally have been from both the right and left – in the UK. And there is no doubt that a very similar situation has arisen in many western countries, such as here in New Zealand.

On the other hand many other political pundits have suggested that we need a lot less regulation. They say that worthwhile commercial and social programs are being held up by excessive regulation and laws which stifle all forms of innovation.

So who is correct?

Well, in many blog posts I have commented on how I think there are too many rules and regulations, but in others I have said that large corporations and other organisations get away with too much as well. So, which is it? Do I want more or less regulation?

Well, I want both. Both the opinions above are correct. It is not so much the number of rules we have (although I still think there are far too many), but the type.

To take an example in New Zealand: one of the biggest disasters here in recent times was the Pike River mine explosion and fire. There is little doubt that it occurred because of incompetent and irresponsible management, something I should note has not really been addressed in the years since the original tragedy began.

On the other hand we have ridiculous health and safety rules in workplaces with no real hazards which have no reasonable chance of preventing any deaths or injuries in any event which could realistically occur.

So there is both stupid, stifling bureaucracy (and a whole class of bureaucrats to enforce it) and a lack of regulation and enforcement where it is actually needed. We seem to have chosen the worst of all possible worlds!

Now I should discuss how this relates to the recent London fire. Before I do I should admit that the exact direct and incidental causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster have not been established yet. However I think there is sufficient evidence on what happened to make my following commentary (AKA rant) relevant. If it turns out that the causes aren’t what currently seems obvious then I will retract this post.

For a start, the facts…

First, a massive fire in an accommodation block in London has resulted in the loss of many lives (about 60 at this point) along with many injuries and missing persons.

Second, the block had recently been renovated by applying panels to the outside, and these panels were primarily decorative and contained a highly flammable material.

Third, the building was not protected by sprinklers and had no (or only defective or inferior) fire alarms and smoke detectors, and the residents were told to stay in their apartments in the case of a fire.

Finally, the residents (who were poorer people even though it was in a rich suburb) had warned the owners that the building was dangerous but had been basically ignored.

So putting the facts together, and reading between the lines a bit, here’s what I think really happened…

The building was in an affluent area and didn’t look up to standard to the rich people living there, so the building owner was pressured to improve its appearance.

The owner, or the contractor doing the work, tried to save a few pounds (in other words make more profit) by using a cheaper building material even though it was a major fire hazard (the cladding used cost 90,000 pounds less than a fire resistant alternative, and was part of a multi-million pound contract). This could happen because building regulations had been loosened by recent governments.

Warnings that the building was dangerous were ignored because the owner simply didn’t care. There was probably nothing illegal about the building itself (although some reports suggest the material was banned). In many ways bad regulations are worse than no regulations at all, because the owner can claim that the building follows the standards.

When the fire started it spread rapidly because of the material used and the fact that the money was spent on superficial cosmetic improvements instead of real safety features like sprinklers or modern alarms. In addition the residents were told to stay in their apartments during a fire – I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m not making this stuff up!

The following might not have made a lot of difference, but because of austerity measures the number of fire fighters serving the area was less than it had been in the past.

The government has made insincere, totally inadequate, and late efforts at helping. Of course an investigation is under way, but we all know how biased those usually are.

Now there are protests over this issue. But who should be the target and what, specifically, went wrong? I don’t think one person or one action can be blamed. This is a systemic thing which might be able to be improved to a limited extent but will never really be OK under the current system.

So, again I get back to the theme that we need revolution and not evolution. If one good thing comes out of this tragedy it might be to wake people from their apathy and have them finally realise that the ruling elite are both incompetent and grossly immoral.

To get back to the original issue about regulations. Do we need more? Well the best option would be to get rid of capitalism so that most decisions weren’t driven entirely by greed. Any decent building owner (assuming people were allowed to own housing at all, and I don’t think they should be) would want to provide safe accommodation, not to make some superficial changes to a squalid death-trap. But until we put decent people in charge we need regulations to control those who currently have all the power.

In summary, until the revolution comes we (regrettably) probably have little choice: we need more red tape to control the worst excesses of a system which is rotten to its very core.

Let’s Vote on It!

June 15, 2017 Leave a comment

There’s an awful lot I don’t like about the way our society works. If you follow this blog you probably have realised this by now, based on the endless diatribe of negativity contained here. I think my fundamental disagreements can be summarised in just a few statements though, so I thought I might list them here, along with some suggested ways to fix them, of course.

1. I reject the need for politics, leadership and management. Why should one person be able to control another? We need to rid ourselves of politicians by moving to a direct democracy and leveraging the wisdom of crowds. And on a smaller scale we need to do the same thing in the workplace. All managers, CEOs, etc must be eliminated.

2. I reject capitalism. The pursuit of financial gain just encourages people to gain financially, not to make a useful contribution to society. The tragedy of the commons shows us that the pursuit of individual wealth will eventually lead to disaster. And no, greed is not good, except for the tiny fraction of people who are greedy, and even they will suffer in the long term.

3. I reject rules and regulations. It is utterly ridiculous how our lives are controlled by so many pointless and inane rules and laws. No one can possibly know them all, yet if we transgress against them we are punished. This includes laws set by politicians and policies and regulations set by companies and other organisations.

4. I reject special privileges given to both individuals and institutions. I am totally against the automatic right to rule given to royalty, and I can’t see why churches should not have to pay taxes like everyone else.

So, now I need to get on with the ways these issues might be fixed. Each one deserves an entire blog post to cover properly so I will just give a quick summary of the sort of solution I would suggest here. No doubt, in future admonishments of the status quo I will expound on these basic principles.

For leadership I suggest we institute a system of management by the people most affected. So every major decision could go to a vote and could be decided that way. Would that mean that every person would be constantly involved with the pros and cons of every potential change? No, because each person would be given a quota of votes they could use during the year and it would be up to them to choose the issues they wanted to use the votes on.

Everyone would have the same number of votes and voting would be easy because it would all work through the internet. What about people who don’t have a computer or don’t like technology? No problem, they would be given a dedicated device which does all the technical stuff for them and connects through the cell network. Anyone who didn’t have the ability or initiative to do even that probably shouldn’t be voting anyway.

We all know that bad decisions are often made by voters in democratic systems, but I say “so what?” Bad decisions are made by politicians and managers all the time. At least, using my method, the people would have “ownership” of the error and would be likely to fix it since no individual blame would be possible.

So what about a replacement for capitalism? Well we need to have a system which rewards behaviour which leads to the best outcomes for the majority rather than capitalism which does the exact opposite. I would be the first to admit that attempts at traditional extreme socialism (USSR, etc) have not worked well, so that isn’t a good substitute. I would suggest a system based on the internet voting I described above might be better. Individuals, companies, etc could be rewarded based on how much the majority of people think they are worth rather than how much they can extract from the existing corrupt system.

I suspect we would find that people working as cancer researchers would be paid more than those who chose to be currency traders under a system like this. Who would possibly argue with that? – apart from currency traders, of course!

Regarding rules and regulations. I don’t suggest we completely remove those, of course. For a start, we would need some of them to make the decisions arrived at by the systems I have already described binding on society.

But let’s think about the rules and laws we have now. As I said above, no one knows them all, yet we are expected to obey them. The reason this works is that the important rules (against murder, theft, etc) are understood by all moral, rational people so it doesn’t really matter whether they are laws or not, and the the more trivial rules (for example, the blasphemy laws I have discussed in the past) tend to be ignored anyway.

So why not have general guidelines instead, and use the voting system again to decide the guilt or innocence of offenders. Anyone could ask for an opinion on how they have been disadvantaged by another person. If one person stole from another they would probably be found guilty, but there might be special situations where society found the theft was acceptable. For example, if someone steals a small amount from another person who is really rich and uses it to buy some medicine a member of their family needs I would say that is no crime. Of course, if the voting system works as expected there won’t be huge discrepancies between the rich and poor any more so this situation might not even arise!

Finally, the special privileges. I’m fairly confident that a vote would quickly eliminate these odd deviations from what is fair. Churches would not be allowed to operate tax free, corporations would not be people, and tax havens would not be allowed. We all know these things aren’t fair and we all know the sophistry used to justify them doesn’t stand up to any fair appraisal. In my system they I think they would be gone.

So there it is: the new utopia! A world where decisions are made by the people, for the people. Lincoln’s dream might finally really happen. In the end it all seems to be about taking control from the self-serving elite and giving it to the people. I’m not naive enough to think that it will happen in any realistic time frame, but hey, it’s just an idea I’m tossing out there. Let’s vote on it!

More Free Speech

June 6, 2017 2 comments

Most people agree that free speech is an important right. In fact, some say that there should be no limits at all on what an individual should be able to say. But when the right of free speech is taken too far even those with that extreme view tend to become a bit more moderate.

I tend towards a view supporting the maximum right to free speech. I think it is very important and the people who try to shut it down are often those who have most to lose if that right is exercised. So I am usually very suspicious of people who want to suppress discussion and criticism of any kind. For example, most large organisations – including companies and governments – keep very tight control over what the members of that organisation are allowed to say about it, even when that is likely to be far more truthful than the official sources.

On the other hand, people should also have a right to privacy and few people would say that one person has the right to free speech to the extent that they share another person’s personal information for no good reason. For example, I know a lot of people’s passwords. Do I have the right of free speech to post them all in this blog post?

So there are two competing rights there: the right to free speech and the right to privacy, and like just about every issue in the realm of fairness and ethics, it is unclear where the balance should lie.

One interesting idea recently shared by a commenter on my blog is that the right to free speech should be absolute, but if that speech leads to negative consequences then the person exercising that right should have to suffer the consequences.

So if I shared the passwords here, that would be OK, but if the owner of one of the passwords lost the contents of their bank account as a result, I would have to reimburse that amount or suffer some form of punishment. The result of this would be that I wouldn’t share passwords because of the risk. Of course, I wouldn’t do it anyway because it is against my moral code!

But what about the situation of a whistle-blower? That is the person who shares some information that would normally be considered private and not the sort of thing a “moral” person would usually distribute but might be justified in being shared to bring attention to a case of corruption affecting the public.

The consequences to the person “owning” the information are negative but to the wider public the result might be positive. So is it the greatest benefit for the greatest number? It’s easy to see how this simple idea could go badly wrong, unfortunately.

So maybe it should be simply based on law. But surely this cannot work because most activities of whistle-blowers is illegal even when it is the right thing to do.

Although this is a difficult issue, I think the current balance is towards too much suppression of ideas, so we need more free speech rather than less. While I would like to move towards the right to say anything at all, for the reasons I listed above, that doesn’t seem practical.

But here are a few areas where we could immediately improve the situation…

Any company or other organisation which operates in the public space (that is, basically all of them) should not use excuses such as “commercial sensitivity” or “executive ownership” to hide facts about their activities.

Anyone should be able to present their opinion on a subject even when it is against the prevailing ideas of political correctness, in fact it is then when contradictory views are most important.

Names and other details of legal procedures, especially those involving the rich and powerful, should not be able to be suppressed, and in jury trials the jury should be given all the facts, not just those deemed relevant by a judge.

You can probably see how these extended rights might be misused, but I have some solutions to that possible problem.

First, there is the idea mentioned above, where real negative consequences resulting from information publicised for poor reasons could be used as the basis of a case against the person revealing the information. And second, I think there should be a mechanism where contrary views and fact checking could be easily associated with any opinion expressed publicly.

For example, if anti-vaccination campaigner is interviewed on radio or TV, a real expert should be involved as well so that the inaccuracies in the first person’s argument could be revealed. Or an argument by a politician wanting to reduce freedoms to fight terrorism could be countered by pointing out what a small risk terrorism really is and how reducing freedom is the exact aim of the terrorists.

The real issue isn’t that controversial views should be suppressed, it’s that they should be negated with a better argument opposing them. And if there is no good argument which can negate their effect? Well maybe that controversial view has some merit and really deserves to be given publicity after all.

One thing’s for sure: suppressing free speech doesn’t make awkward opinions go away, it just makes them even harder to handle because the fact that they are suppressed and never effectively countered just makes them look more powerful to those who follow them.

Have a look at recent political events and this phenomenon is very obvious. Suppressing speech doesn’t suppress ideas, it just builds resentment and hostility.