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Fake News

January 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Everyone has some bias, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to be totally neutral and fair, especially on topics which are very divisive, like race-based politics, or the performance of Donald Trump. But we do expect some effort on the part of certain professions to show a fair degree of impartiality. They should make at least a token gesture towards giving both sides a fair hearing. And maybe at the top of this list of impartial professions should be journalism – at least that’s what you might have thought.

But apparently not. Fake news is everywhere, and even when the news isn’t fake, it is so close to being fake – through biased reporting, uneven treatment of different aspects of a story, and selectiveness regarding what is reported – that it is often more pernicious than an obviously fake story.

Here in New Zealand I have always trusted Radio New Zealand (now called RNZ, I think, to reflect their new multi-media approach) as my preferred source. It wasn’t that they were necessarily more accurate – although they often were – but more that their professionalism and commitment to unbiased reporting was better than most others.

Well not any more, because RNZ is so overwhelmed by political correctness and a populist, leftist agenda, that they can no longer be trusted to the same extent. I still use RNZ as my primary news source, but I no longer trust anything they say without checking it against other sources.

My favourite interviewer on RNZ was always Kim Hill. She had an intelligent, and in most cases a well researched, interview style, and generally tried to keep her innate biases under control. But apparently this is not a priority for her any more.

To show how totally biased she is (and the same applies to most staff at RNZ) I could compare two interviews she has done recently. The first was with Don Brash about his fairly reasonable (at least in most aspects, although he definitely got one or two points wrong) criticism of the way the Maori language is used by the media, especially RNZ. And the second was with Michael Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury” the just released book exposing the alleged dysfunction of the Trump presidency.

From the very start of the interview with Brash it was obvious that Hill was not going to listen to his alternative opinions, and that she was going to be very aggressive towards him. She didn’t listen to his points, and seemed to be more interested in pursuing her own agenda with no regard to what he said.

Brash is a very calm person, but that often doesn’t work well against a more emotional attack. An acceptance that his opponent’s view has some merit is often seen as weakness, especially when the opponent refuses to make the same concessions.

And he occasionally tries to make points based on what could be most charitably described as poor research, but that doesn’t mean other parts of his argument are totally without merit. He deserved a far better hearing than what he got on RNZ.

All that is bad enough, and it might even be excusable if it was applied evenly. But apparently that fairness is not part of RNZ’s makeup. Because the interview with anti-Trump author, Michael Wolff, was the exact opposite.

Although it is well known that Wolff’s style is confrontational and occasionally not well supported by objective facts, Hill’s interview with him was totally devoid of any incredulity. She never questioned his extreme comments which didn’t seem to be supported by very much more than an opinion, and he never offered a single challenge to any of his conclusions.

For example, saying that a major public figure like Trump is stupid and/or has major psychological issues – which don’t need to be formally diagnosed – really requires some form of challenge. This suggestion is just as bad as anything Don Brash said, yet Hill just loved it. Not only did she not challenge these obviously questionable claims, but she seemed to offer tacit approval for them.

Note that I am not saying I agree with everything Don Brash said, or that I disagree with everything Michael Wolff said. What I am saying is that public radio should be a forum where fair discussion of ideas is possible, even when those ideas are controversial. In fact it should be that especially when the ideas are controversial.

I know people who are a bit more oriented to the right of politics than me who used to listen to RNZ. Back when they were more balanced RNZ could maintain an audience with various political views. But I think that is far less likely now. The people I mentioned above now listen to some inane talkback show which is full of biased and ignorant opinions. But how can I criticise that when our premium news service is really not a lot better?

So the thing that really worries me is that by being so one-sided and by failing to encourage robust debate on contentious issues, the more left-leaning media are just pushing away any audience which doesn’t agree with their politically correct agenda. I have been close to abandoning RNZ myself but I still find enough valuable material there that I can stick with it.

But for how much longer, I really don’t know.

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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.

Is the President Right?

January 30, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that every day Donald Trump launches another onslaught on the sensibilities of many people around the world. Well, when I say “many people”, I should probably say that these people probably occupy a relatively small niche of those who care enough to comment or act, and who are sufficiently to the left or sufficiently PC that they reject everything Trump does.

I need to say at this point that there is plenty in regards to Trump which everyone should be concerned about. In general these issues stem from a disregard for what is true (or what is sufficiently well supported by evidence that it could be reasonably assumed to be true), such as climate change.

But let’s look at the latest controversy: the tighter border controls, especially for those from certain, majority Islamic countries. Many people are totally against this action, and the inevitable protests and condemnation have been ongoing since it was announced, but how bad is it, really?

Well, like most things Trump does, it is pretty bad, but nowhere near as bad as many people seem to think. My main objection is not the underlying idea, but the implementation.

The main reason for the president’s action is ostensibly to prevent terrorism in the US. It has been pointed out in many places that Islamic terrorism isn’t really a major issue in the US (at least, not since 9/11) and this makes the underlying justification invalid, but does it?

There is little doubt (at least amongst those who look at the facts) that terrorism around the world is primarily carried out by Muslims. The best list of international terrorist attacks I can find indicates that Islamic extremists perform far more attacks than every other group put together. So, from an international perspective it is reasonable to be cautious of Muslims.

Of course, very few Muslims actually pose a threat, but it is still a factor which can’t be ignored. The religion itself also seems to incite violence more than most. Of course, this will be debated by those who claim (with very little justification) that Islam is a “religion of peace”, but there are many places in the Koran and Hadith where violent actions seem to be encouraged – more so than the New Testament, for example, although maybe not as much as the Old!

So I don’t think simply being a Muslim or coming from a country where Islam is the dominant religion should be enough to deny someone rights to visit or immigrate to the US, but it should be a factor which is considered. Unfortunately, anyone who belongs to this religion should expect to be more closely checked than others.

And that isn’t racist or xenophobic, it’s just common sense based on statistics. Muslims are more likely to be involved with terrorism. It’s that simple.

In a recent debate on this subject I was challenged with an argument like this: “you (that is me) say that Muslims are more violent, does that mean men should be more closely scrutinised too because they are more prone to violence?” I’m sure my questioner expected me to say “no, that’s different”, but it isn’t and I said “yes, and I’m sure that happens already”.

But the PC brigade seem to accept that as OK. They love to point out how women are less violent then men and therefore should be given extra trust, but don’t seem to be able to apply the same logic to different religious groups.

And I don’t think the idea that all groups deserve the same level of trust can be justified. If a person belonged to a neo-Nazi group they would be unlikely to be trusted much, so clearly varying levels exist. And all religions have different beliefs so it’s hard to defend the idea that they are all equally positive. So clearly some religious groups must be less trustworthy than others. And, as I said above, the evidence clearly shows that, in the current era at least, a group which probably deserves a bit less trust is Islam.

So President Trump’s specific actions don’t make sense, so from that perspective he is wrong, but I think the underlying sentiment makes some sense, do maybe, just maybe, he’s a little bit right, too.

Embarrassing Liberals

November 11, 2016 2 comments

I have always been a bit of an iconoclast, and a devil’s advocate, and I often like to contribute to discussions – especially in on-line fora like Facebook and Youtube – by pointing out weaknesses in other people’s arguments, even if that person is ostensibly “on my side”.

And I expect the same back again. I don’t feel personally attacked or diminished if someone wants to argue with me and possibly look for problems with my own arguments. And I have changed my perspective when these have turned out to be genuine. If anything, it’s when I don’t get any feedback – positive or negative – that I feel most aggrieved.

In the past I have mainly debated against conservatives, although I do point out BS everywhere I see it, and there are certain beliefs of the liberal left which I feel just as offended by, especially those to do with unthinking political correctness.

As you might have guessed by now, this is leading up to a rant about the utter disdain I feel towards my erstwhile allies on the left in regard to their reaction to Donald Trump’s win in the recent US presidential election.

I must have seen a thousand comments so far and the vast majority of them boil down to this: they think Donald Trump does not react in the way they expect towards women, Muslims, and foreginers (especially Mexicans). Of course this sounds so much better when it is expressed as a convenient sound bite like “he’s misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic”.

I totally agree that there is a tendency towards these attributes in Trump’s character but just applying those labels instead of debating the finer points of the situation is just cowardly and anti-intellectual.

And the anti-Trump protests (some of which have been labelled riots) don’t show the Clinton supporters – who presumably would have been my allies in the past – in a very good light. When Trump said he might not accept the outcome of the election (because he thought it might be rigged) he was ridiculed and disparaged by the left. Is it not the ultimate in hypocrisy that they are now doing exactly the same thing themselves?

And what is the point if these protests? Do they expect the outcome of the election to be reversed? Do they think that the democratic process should be negated because they are acting like a bunch of spoiled kids? I really have no idea.

There is one main reason Trump won the election and it has nothing to do with misogyny, racism, or xenophobia. He won because he represented a change from the existing political establishment. An establishment that Clinton represented strongly. Trump didn’t really win, Clinton lost. Look at the voter turn-out and it’s clear that Democrats just didn’t turn up. Why? Because Clinton didn’t represent what they wanted.

I have never belonged to a political party, but I would generally self-identify with the liberal left. Well not any more. From now on I am not identifying with anything. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t identify with the conservative right, or with Libertarianism, or even with the Green agenda. I find all of these ideologies partly good and partly bad to varying degrees. But after the mindless nonsense I have heard from the left recently I certainly feel a lot less attraction towards that side of politics than I ever have before.

The left is losing ground in many parts of the world and the main reason seems to be its total detachment from reality. Surely the Democrats must have realised that Clinton was the wrong person for this job. And they had the perfect alternative available: Bernie Sanders, whose efforts were sabotaged by the party machine.

So they deserved to fail. Unfortunately, that meant that Trump got success, but that’s what happened and it was not misogynistic, racist, xenophobic voters who are to blame, it’s the Democratic party who thought it was business as usual. Well it isn’t, and I hope they realise that for the next election, because they had better offer a better candidate at that one or they will just fail again.

Many commentators agree with me regarding the election being a reaction against the establishment, and a smaller number agree with me on my next point: that the problem goes back to the neo-liberal revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. That was when all sides of politics jumped on the bandwagon and abandoned their traditional principles.

In the UK Tony Blair’s Labour government were so far right that they were unrecognisable. The same happened in New Zealand where the 1984 Labour government started it all in this country. And it’s happened in the US too, where the Democrats took up many of the same ideas that traditionally belonged on the right. Well the zeitgeist ahs changed. Finally we are realising that neo-liberalism doesn’t work. The left needs to get back where it belongs: on the left.

Abraham Lincoln promised “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” but that last piece has been forgotten. Liberals need to forget about their meaningless slogans and their mindless rhetoric and get on with solving the real problems. Until then they are just an embarrassment to be associated with.

President Trump

November 9, 2016 3 comments

OK, so Donald Trump’s victory is the big news of the moment, so I guess I should be commenting on it in my blog. You might wonder why I would bother considering how much has already been said, but I want to filter out the unsubstantiated drivel from the avalanche of opinion and leave the more perspicacious commentary behind. So here are my comments…

First of all, I want to say that I am not a Donald Trump or a Republican supporter, and in general I would be more likely to support the Democrats. But this is different. Not only is Trump not a typical Republican, but Clinton is also a very unlikeable Democrat. If I was an American and was eligible to vote there, I think I would probably just have stayed at home.

Second, I think the shock loss by Clinton has lead to a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from her supporters, and I think most of it can be safely ignored. I would especially be inclined to ignore anything which concludes that racism or misogyny is the reason for Clinton’s loss. As I suggested in my previous blog post, it’s just too easy to blame any failure by a woman on sexism.

Third, there are a lot of highly exaggerated claims and assumptions of the worst possible outcomes as a result of Trump winning. Surely people don’t really think he is literally going to carry out all the things he talked about during his campaign. It should be obvious that those are ideas which, even if he really wanted to execute them, would likely be blocked by other parts of the US government. Even though it looks like the House, Senate, and Supreme Court will all be under Republican control, they will all moderate Trump’s more extreme ideas.

Fourth, so why did Trump win? I think people are just sick of the staus quo, of the political elite ignoring the majority, and of the establishment which continues to get more out of touch with reality. There is a worldwide trend towards this, and I think a similar attitude was responsible for Brexit. Clinton represented the establishment and Trump is something new. Unfortunately, new is not always better.

Finally, OK so Trump is going to be president. Let’s give the guy a chance. Who knows, maybe it might turn out a lot better than many people think. Once he gets into that position of power maybe he’ll behave himself a bit better and get a bit more realistic about what is and isn’t practical.

So there’s a few quick thoughts on the subject. Once the dust settles and we see what sort of leader Trump is really going to be I can comment further. That’s assuming the internet isn’t destroyed in the inevitable apocalypse, of course!

I Demand My Moon Base!

July 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Our species has a lot to be proud of, right? Well yes, in a way that is true, but there are many places where we could do so much better too. For me, one of the more depressing areas is the failure to push the boundaries of exploration, to get out there, to take risks, to move forward.

This has happened in many places but I guess the most obvious example is in the space program. The last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 which landed in 1972. Since then no human has travelled beyond low Earth orbit. And since the demise of the Shuttle the leading space exploration nation hasn’t had the capability to do that even if it wanted to.

So what’s stopping progress in this, and many other areas? The most obvious answer is that the money isn’t there, but as is always the case this simply isn’t true. There’s piles of money around and the capability to resume a serious space program could easily be achieved. We could easily have had a Moon colony by now, for example.

In fact I recently read an article in “Futurism” magazine on this exact subject. Futurism is a magazine whose mission is “…to empower our readers and drive the development of transformative technologies towards maximizing human potential”. Sounds like a great aim and I found most of the material there quite interesting, although a little bit optimistic regarding technology.

Of course, I also believe technology (and not politics, religion, or business) is the answer to most of our problems and the underlying source of most of the positive benefits of modern society, so they are preaching to the converted there!

But to get back to the practicality and costs of building a Moon base. Futurism estimates the cost at $10 billion and that it could be done by 2022. Is that a lot of money? Well it’s less than the cost of just one new aircraft carrier.

I wonder what proportion of the US population would be prepared to sacrifice just one carrier to get a Moon base. I really hope it would be most of them, or I would have to conclude that the country really has gone further down the path to self-destruction than I thought.

Let’s look at the total US budget for 2015. The country spent $637 billion on defence out of a total spend of $3.97 trillion. This equates to 16% of the total – the only two higher categories were healthcare at 25% and social security at 24%. NASA’s budget was $18 billion (just 2% of the military’s or 0.5% of the total – the lowest it has been since NASA was created).

How much does that equate to as part of the total? Well, if you had a salary of $50,000 then 0.5% is 250 dollars – about what someone might spend on a moderately expensive family dinner at a restaurant. It doesn’t really seem like a lot, does it?

But what about the argument over what the space program contributes to society? Well, there are three ways it contributes: direct beenfits like communications satellites; indirect but objective benefits like new technologies created while the program was being developed; and more subjective benefits which exist just because exploration and pushing the boundaries is inherently a good thing.

But that aside, we could make the same argument about the military, or social security, or health not contributing in an obvious way. From a conventional accounting perspective it’s probably hard to justify those as well.

Perhaps the strangest thing is that it is often the more conservative members of society who want to “make America great again” who question the value of scientific programs but who fail to realise that it is exactly those programs which did make America great.

Another factor which might be holding up progress on space exploration is risk aversion. NASA has become extremely careful about balancing risk against moving forward. The Shuttle accidents didn’t help of course, but space exploration is just hard and there will always be accidents. Some degree of caution is necessary but it shouldn’t lead to a virtual paralysis.

Then there is the idea from some groups in society that science cannot be trusted, that it is out of favour in some way, and that it has an agenda contrary to it’s stated one of establishing the truth about the natural world.

Some people reject evolution, some think climate change is a conspiracy, some think vaccinations cause autism, and others believe the Moon landings were a hoax. These are all totally irrational ideas but they all contribute to an acceptance of lower investment in science.

Finally there is the neoliberal dogma that free markets and profit-driven activities are always best. These people think that business generates all the benefits in society and that science is just a parasite on that.

But I would say that the opposite is true: business is a parasite on science and technology. For example, many companies (Google, Facebook, etc) make a lot of money from using the internet but the internet only exists because of military and scientific research organisations. The internet originated at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, run by the US military) and the web began at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). So who is really exploiting the hard work and original ideas of others?

I’m not saying the military shouldn’t be funded at all, although I hope there will be a time in the (perhaps distant) future when militaries are no longer necessary. What I am saying is that it wouldn’t really hurt to spend a bit less on aircraft carriers and failed jet fighter projects and a little bit more on space exploration.

And yes, I demand my Moon base!

Skillful Lying

June 6, 2016 Leave a comment

There’s an old joke which says: “Question: How can you tell when a politician is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.” It’s not literally true, of course, because politicians also lie in printed material (where their lips aren’t moving). But seriously, it has become a bigger problem recently because skillful lying is now a sophisticated and effective technique for gaining and maintaining power.

In many cases the lie (or error, or inaccuracy, or deliberate or accidental deception) isn’t particularly well hidden. I hate to belabour the obvious, but Donald Trump is probably the most well known source of statements which simply aren’t true, and even occasionally contradict earlier statements by himself! In a recent discussion by American comedian/commentator, Bill Maher, the explanation offered was that he makes so many incorrect statements that no one takes any notice any more.

The fact that someone whose accuracy is (deliberately or through ignorance) so poor is doing so well is a sad indictment on American politics. Or maybe the fact that he increasingly seems to be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for president is a sad indictment on her (assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, because although I think she will I don’t think she should).

So Trump is the most obvious liar because he says things which are simply untrue, but Clinton in some ways is worse. I really cannot take anything she says seriously because she just emanates such an air of inauthenticity that I really can’t stand to listen to her. It’s like every word doesn’t come from her but from some spin doctor who has contrived words intended to evoke the greatest positive response from the voters.

I presume all American politicians (including my preferred presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders) have advisors recommending what they should say and how they should say it, but the lack of legitimacy on Clinton’s part seems, to me, to be beyond anyone else.

And while I’m on this subject, I think the concept of “skillful lying” also explains the success of the current New Zealand government. As I have said in the past, even I was initially, if not enthusiastic then at least fairly accepting, of the current center-right administration, even though they didn’t really do anything I fully supported.

Maybe I was initially deceived by the superb spin machine that the National Party seems to have at its disposal. As I have looked at the situation more carefully I have realised that they have employed masterly deception, deflection, and diversion to cover any deficiencies in their actual actions.

And since I became aware of these techniques I have seen them used in many places. One of our prime minister’s favourite tricks is to turn a challenge which he cannot answer into a joke. When he makes a humorous response to a serious question and the person opposing him tries to bring him back to the serious matter it just makes his opponent look boring and humourless. It’s a brilliant strategy and many people are beguiled by this clever strategy to the point that they forget that he never answered the original question.

Another popular habit of successful public figures is offering their opinion on subjects they know nothing about. Again, Trump is a champion at this and our PM is developing an expertise too. He recently offered an opinion on the unfortunate demise of Harambe, the gorilla. Of course, why shouldn’t he, because almost everyone else did too!

A more politically relevant subject where the PM made a misleading statement related to “cheap” (which actually aren’t very cheap) housing in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. The PM claimed there were many houses for sale below $500 thousand if anyone “Googled” New Zealand’s major trading site, TradeMe. But a simple search reveals this simply isn’t true. There are very few houses in that category and, of the few which do exist, most are either tiny, long distances out of town, on islands, or (in one case) actually a boat 2 hours away from the CBD.

But that illustrates one further point: that fact checking in live interviews is almost impossible. An interviewer can’t challenge a statement which seems fake until they research it, and in the fast paced political world we live in by then it’s too late.

Politicians no doubt know all of this and they also know that, as Abe Lincoln said: “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.” But, of course, you don’t need to.