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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.

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.

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!