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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!

Neoliberalism has Failed

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Sometimes it takes our leaders years to figure out what we already know, and other times they never figure it out at all. Take neoliberalism for example (by this I mean free markets, globalisation, open borders, laissez faire economics, flexible labour, privatisation, austerity, small government). Most of us could see from the start that it wouldn’t work, and we certainly figured it out after a few years of miserable failure. Now, almost 35 years since the experiment began in New Zealand, that should be obvious to everyone, except those most ideologically wed to the idea.

Former New Zealand prime minister, Jim Bolger, has certainly got the idea by now. He put it pretty plainly when he said that “Neoliberalism has failed New Zealand”. Of course, he was only a moderately strong advocate when he was PM. He actually got rid of the vile Ruth Richardson (a strong supporter of neoliberalism and creator of “Ruthanasia”) and put Bill Birch in as minister of finance.

Just to show how mad Richardson really was, even the relatively moderate Birch who replaced her is still clinging to the dream. He still spouts the old lines about people having “more choice” under neoliberalism. More choice for what? To get ripped off by an employer or suffer through degrading unemployment, I guess. Or maybe the choice is whether to live in your car, stay in your friend’s garage, or to share a room with 10 other people. Gee thanks, Bill. Those are great choices.

Bolger clearly gets it now. He even thinks that unions need more power. He can see that the changes in the labour market his government forced through have been bad for the majority. And I think that most of our current politicians can see that too.

Even the center-right National Party (the same party Bolger was the leader of back in the 90s) has backed away from extreme neoliberalism. They haven’t gone far enough, of course, because most of the damaging policies are still there, but at least they haven’t taken it any further. There hasn’t been another major privatisation (which almost inevitably end in disaster) for many years, for example.

It will probably be many decades before we again repeat the mistakes of neoliberalism. After all, before the current cycle the last one was just prior to the Great Depression (coincidence? I think not), so we might have up to 50 years of relative sanity.

That hasn’t stopped those who have gained most from neoliberalism from trying to defend it. The chief executive of Business New Zealand claims everyone is now better off. This is obviously untrue (you just need to look at the real, inflation adjusted, wealth figures to see this) but these people follow Joseph Goebbels’ philosophy and think that if they repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth – unfortunately, it often does.

I often use the idea of the “zeitgeist” when I discuss world trends in this blog. I think there is a clear global mood now to reject neoliberalism. Regrettably this seems to have been replaced with nationalism and conservatism, which has its own problems – again, people never seem to learn from history.

Another interesting thing I have noticed recently is for people to laugh at Any Rand, one of the spiritual founders of neoliberalism. I have heard comments like “yeah that person has about as much credibility as Ayn Rand!”. And, now that I’m thinking about it, a lot of people weren’t exactly upset when Margaret Thatcher died a few years back. In fact, it’s interesting how many women were strong supporters of the ideology. If you ever needed any proof that more women in politics is not automatically a good thing, then surely this should convince you of that idea.

So, yes, neoliberalism has failed… or has it? All of the stated aims: smaller government, more open markets, a more flexible work force, etc have been achieved. But there is one more thing we were promised which hasn’t happened: the benefits trickling down. Undoubtedly the “trickle down” part of neoliberalism has been conspicuously absent. I guess that was always the intention. But you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. And the people aren’t being fooled by this pernicious ideology any more.

ANZAC Protests

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

About 2 years ago I commented on an incident where an Australian sports commentator was fired for making some tweets critical of Australia’s record in past wars. The tweets were made on ANZAC Day which is a day observed in Australia and here in New Zealand to commemorate the sacrifice of our military personnel in past wars, especially the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

The general conclusion I reached then was that the tweets were (probably deliberately) provocative and somewhat insulting, and in most cases not particularly accurate, but also did raise some valid issues related to that country’s participation in war.

On ANZAC Day this year in New Zealand we have had a controversy which was also related to criticisms of our past war record. This time, we had a group protesting the lack of a serious investigation into allegations of the possible involvement of New Zealand troops with war crimes in Afghanistan.

They held a sign protesting civilian war deaths (which read “Lest We Remember: No NZ support for war”) and attempted to place a wreath on a war memorial to remember the civilians allegedly killed by a botched raid lead by New Zealand military personnel in Afghanistan in 2010.

At that point they were verbally attacked, especially by a minor political official of New Zealand’s populist party, New Zealand First, and his particularly loud and obnoxious 12 year old son. Up until then any protest had been minimal and the solemnity of the occasion had hardly been disturbed.

They approached the protesters and shouted that they should not be there. The boy then said “Do it tomorrow, do it the day before, do it any day – but today it is wrong, wrong, wrong” and “You are so inappropriate, I just cannot believe this.”

Note that word “inappropriate”, which I have commented on before. This word is used (and I must admit to being guilty of this occasionally myself) as a way to say that you don’t like something but want to make it seem like your dislike is based on something more universal or objective.

So instead of saying “I don’t like that” a person will say “that is inappropriate”, because whether something is inappropriate or not is, in most cases, a matter of opinion. And it certainly is in this case.

In fact a poll run by NZ news organisation Newshub showed 67% of respondents supported protests on ANZAC day as being OK. I do need to emphasise this wasn’t a scientific poll and (at the time I voted) only had 2500 votes, but it did seem to correlate with the majority of comments I saw on the subject.

The protesers were peaceful and reasonable and the only time the subdued mood of the occasion was broken was when they were shouted at. Even then, they replied in a quiet and reasonable way.

I should also say that if someone is going to criticise another group, especially in a context like this, then they should expect to get criticised in return, and I do think it is good that people make their strongly held opinions known, but it is really a matter of how these things are done and the vigorous, loud, and seemingly tactless attack on the protesters was unacceptable (see how easy it is to use that word?)

Many people think New Zealand’s official national day, Waitangi Day, has been spoiled by protest (and I have blogged about his in the past) and it might be that another important day for this country is heading that way too.

I don’t think that is necessarily bad, but the protests have to be reasonable and they shouldn’t be over-done. That is bad for two reasons: first, too much protest spoils the event for others; and second, too much protest loses any meaning and just becomes background noise.

One of the claims made about our country’s past reasons for going to war was to protect our freedoms, such as the ability to speak out against injustice and to protest. It is sort of ironic now if those freedoms are being denied. And it is also ironic if a protest about a protest is more disruptive than the original protest!

If people would just settle down a bit, recognise that there are alternative views on every topic, including the way that our military personnel have acted, and just talk about these things reasonably instead of shouting mindlessly, then everyone would benefit. Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Next

April 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading (actually listening to the audiobook version of) the Michael Crichton novel, Next, which I found both compelling and interesting, and hard to “put down”.

I know that his work gets a certain amount of criticism because of his failure to follow what many deem to be the standard mechanisms writers should use to produce the best results (clear leading characters, strong single plot lines, full and complex character development) but I find his books quite engrossing because of the complex plots and interesting treatment of ideas and controversies.

Next was the last book Crichton wrote before his death from cancer in 2008 at age 66. I have read or listened to most of his other books and liked them for the same reasons I liked this one: he includes a lot of credible scientific and technical details; he often has several plots and sub-plots running simultaneously and interacting in complex ways; and he always has a greater philosophical, political, or scientific point to make.

I should emphasise that this is fiction based on science. In the introduction to the book the author says “this novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.” and in a New York Times Book Review they described the book as “a barrage of truths, half-truths and untruths”.

Maybe the best example of this is in another of his novels, Jurassic Park (the one the movies were based on) where the dinosaur DNA is sourced from amber. This is a genuine technique but not one which is likely to allow recovery of material more than 65 million years old.

But the real point of Jurassic Park is not about *how* dinosaurs might be brought back to life but *if* they should. In the book the dinosaurs get out of control – as predicted by the expert in chaos theory (also a real thing and basically well portrayed) – despite the best efforts of the people in charge.

And this is a common theme in other Crichton books. They usually involve failures to allow for all possible problems, greed and unrealistic optimism leading to bad decisions, and incompetent and corrupt people causing systems to break down.

I found it interesting, as the book proceded, to try to guess which parts were true and, if they were based on fact, how much fact. So all of the following are parts of the book which sound odd but are essentially true: cells taken in medical procedures are used for profit by universities without the donors’ consent; body parts are harvested by morgues and funeral directors and sold; transgenic species, including monkeys, have already been created; modern human blonde genes probably originated in Neanderthals; and an artist has used his own fat (obtained through liposuction) to make a meatball served at a dinner party!

Actually, the only “fact” I checked which I couldn’t verify was the existence of a group mentioned in the book called the “society for libertarian biology” which doesn’t appear to exist. No doubt there are many other fictional elements too, that was just the only one I checked.

So here are some of the themes/ideas presented in the book which I agreed with, or at least found interesting…

We need to stop patenting genes. This is totally absurd from a logical perspective, it is intolerable from any reasonable moral viewpoint, and it doesn’t even make much sense from a business or economic angle, except for the company who has the patent for something they have no right to. There are many examples already of gene patents causing great harm to both individuals and society. The processes of science and discovery in general have been warped by business.

We need better rules for tissue storage and we need to enforce them. Again there are many examples of where companies have acted in very morally doubtful ways to profit from cells they “own”. The pursuit of profit has warped basic moral standards.

The real outcomes of research and development must be made public. Research and trials of new drugs and treatments sometimes leads to bad outcomes for the subjects, including death, and this should not be hidden behind commercial sensitivity and trade secrets. In fact (this is just my opinion), commercial sensitivity should always be rejected: all information relating to large organisations (companies, universities, etc) should be public. The pursuit of profit has destroyed basic fairness.

Studies of commercial products need to be transparent and performed by neutral scientists. Under the current system 90% of drug trials give positive results for the person funding the trial. It seems a clear case of where science has been corrupted by business.

We should avoid bans on research. All research is useful although some caution needs to be used in potentially dangerous or morally ambiguous situations. Again we need a scientific approach rather than a commercial one

Universities have become too commercial and their original function as unbiased commentators on society and originators of pure knowledge have largely gone. In public universities the taxpayers pay, the universities profit by selling their new discoveries to corporations who sell them back (with extreme profits) back to the taxpayers who paid for them to start with. Again, science has been corrupted by commerce

Look at the last sentence of each of those points and it is pretty obvious where the problem lies. The problem is the same one responsible for most of our modern problems: uncontrolled capitalism. It’s a point I have made many times and it is interesting that the same point is apparent in Crichton’s work, even though he is often considered a libertarian.

Finally, I liked this book. it was thoughtful but also fast paced, serious but also humorous in parts, based on fact but those were portrayed through fiction. The ultimate recommendation: I started another Crichton novel as soon as I finished this one!