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Archive for December, 2009

So I said at the end of last year that my resolution for 2009, if I were to insist on summing up my aspirations in a single pithy phrase, would be “More words”. There weren’t really any areas of my life that I thought needed a major overhaul, but I wanted to get some more writing done. And I think I’m going to call that a win.

This year I’m going to pick a new aim along somewhat different lines. More words is definitely still a goal, but that’s been a continuous project for some time now, and doesn’t take on any more importance in 2010 than this past year. My new year’s resolution, such as it is, is something connected to my word count though, and will hopefully assist with it in a slightly roundabout way.

It reads thusly:

Stop clutching at spoons.

I should probably elaborate.

The Spoons Theory seems to originate from this site, with the full story in this PDF file. It’s something I stumbled upon online some time ago, and have heard a few other people make casual reference to since then. It’s a metaphor for living with an illness or disability, using spoons as a concrete representation of your physical energy.

The author is a woman with lupus who was trying to explain to a friend something of what it was like to be chronically ill. She grabbed a handful of spoons, just because they were within reach, and handed them to her friend to represent the energy or physical strength she had to do things. Then she got her friend to talk her through every activity she’d undergo in a typical day, and would take a spoon away for everything she wanted to be able to do. It helped to highlight the limitations that a chronic illness can place on you, and the restricted choices that sufferers are forced to make.

Now, I don’t have a chronic fatigue condition. I’m pretty much certain that there’s nothing actually medically diagnosable about me in that area. But I’m not an especially bouncy or energetic person. And I’m deeply introverted, which means that being around other people is always an intensely draining experience. So, because lots of those pesky “other people” keep insisting on hanging around the office I spend forty hours a week in, and often even try and talk to me, I end up being fairly tired in quite a bit of my spare time. This is especially the case when I want to do something like go out to a comedy show or any other gig in London, which tends to leave me with very few spoons left to do much else over the next day or two.

This is why I’ve never yet actually made it to a Skeptics in the Pub meeting. I can’t just amble into London and find a pub of an evening whenever I find I have some spare time. It takes a lotta spoons.

Plus, I’m trying to be a writer, and writing is hard. After all, a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, especially when you have to have to do research and look up actual Thomas Mann quotes for things on the interwebs.

My point is, although “More words” has been an admirable goal this past year, and I’m proud of my accomplishments in this area, I’ve spent more time than I would have liked getting frustrated at my dearth of spoons, and berating myself for my subsequent inactivity. And I want to stop doing that. I’m going to keep getting things done – my ambition hasn’t diminished, by any means – but I’m going to try and maintain a better awareness of my limitations. I’m going to let myself have some time off now and then without apologising for it quite so often and so tediously. I’m going to set aside some time for various creative projects when I have the energy and the drive to get it done, and also set aside some other time to say “fuck it” and take the evening off without a shred of guilt.

The theory is that this will make me happier without significantly cutting into my productivity. Let’s see how it goes. It’s not a resolution as such, I suppose, just a new way I’m going to approach things – but if you have anything you’re hoping to achieve in the new year yourself, Richard Wiseman has some tips that might be worth reading.

Happy 2010, people.

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The first I heard of it was on the Radio 1 news report that woke me up today, though I get the impression that I’m rather late to the game. This morning, a British man called Akmal Shaikh was executed in China.

He’d been caught at an airport in 2007, carrying 4kg of heroin, which he’d apparently smuggled in from Kyrgyzstan. He may or may not have been an unknowing pawn of the real drug traders’ cruel machinations, as I believe some have claimed. He also may or may not have suffered from some significant mental illness; the courts refused to allow a mental examination. I don’t think either of those things is desperately relevant.

Well, they’re certainly relevant to some broader, more general questions about the ethics of capital punishment, and its application here. Mental illness is hugely relevant to the question of diminished responsibility, as is the extent to which the evidence implicates Shaikh himself in the crime, and the nature of his role in it – as hapless victim, low-level drug mule, or monstrous kingpin.

These are valuable questions, and for the most part I’ll spare you my unqualified musings. They tie in to a deeply controversial debate about the death penalty, and while my fundamental feelings on the matter can be quite neatly summed up with the word “against”, it’s not an entirely one-sided issue. Sometimes, somebody on some other part of the spectrum (and it is a deeply complex spectrum) than the extreme “against” side will have some compelling arguments to make.

But amidst all this vagueness, there’s one thing I’m pretty damn sure of.

And that’s that, when China executes a British citizen, whatever your thoughts on capital punishment in general might be, the correct response is not “I’m glad he’s dead, and the rest of his lot should all go the same way.”

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much the gist of this Daily Mail article by Leo McKinstry.

It’s really worth a read. If you do, it should be clear that I’m not just having a go because someone dares to disagree with me on the basic matter of whether executing people is ever okay. I’m really open to arguments in favour of the death penalty. I’m against it, but I know people who aren’t, and we get on okay, partly because they don’t characterise my position as “liberal wailing” and their position doesn’t ever strike me as, say, “bloodthirsty and primitive sadism”.

There’s plenty of room for differing viewpoints. But this is just bullshit.

In what I understand is a typical angle for the Daily Mail to return to, it’s explained why it’s pathetic and whiny of us to object to China’s refusal to listen to the UK government’s pleas for clemency: “Ordinary citizens are constantly bullied through a plethora of bureaucratic regulations, yet violence, burglary, theft and drug abuse carry no consequences.”

Read that last bit again. He’s saying without qualification that there are “no consequences” in this country for violent crimes, burglary, and drug abuse. Never has my tendency to forego rational argument for sarcasm and personal abuse been more appropriate. If McKinstry honestly thinks that what he wrote there is literally true, then he’s a fucking retard.

Again, I really don’t object to a discussion about, say, whether crime victims get the help they need, or whether certain measures introduced with the aim of securing people’s human rights actually have a beneficial effect, or how various forms of penal retribution affect recidivism rates. That sounds like a useful and important debate, in fact, on which I have some tentative views, but on which I could probably learn a lot by talking about it with someone who wasn’t a colossal prick.

The case of Tracy Housel is also mentioned in this article. He was a British man executed in the US a few years ago, to the “hysteria” of liberals in the UK. He was brain-damaged and mentally ill, but we’re told that “this hardly explained his record of extreme violence”. I can’t find the bit of this article where it details McKinstry’s medical qualifications and doctorates that would justify him in such an analysis, and give any authority whatever to such a sure statement about the effects of a brain injury and serious medical condition on the behaviour of a person he’s never met. I’m probably just not looking hard enough.

And anyway, this Akmal Shaikh guy was “amoral, selfish, and irresponsible.” Everyone knows it’s okay to kill the selfish and irresponsible. Have we really forgotten what Jesus taught us? Doesn’t someone remember his parable about the state murdering people if they were carrying drugs and acted like kind of a dick to someone in the past? I’m pretty sure he was cool with it.

If you’re still not convinced, look, there’s a big picture of Kate Moss. Checkmate, liberals.

Okay, I’m all out of anger. I’m feeling good about being back in the saddle, words-wise, and I’m off to get some fried chicken.

Oh, one more thing before I go: Demi Moore’s lawyers have sent a threatening letter to Boing Boing, demanding that one of their posts (which raised the question of whether a magazine cover picture of her had been digitally manipulated) be removed. Xeni’s response is pretty awesome. Right, now I really am hungry.

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Just a quite note from the family homestead to say Happy Christmas, everyone. Or other wishes of seasonal awesomeness if Christmas isn’t your thing.

I’ll be back this weekend or shortly thereafter, with some news and probably yet more apologies for not writing anything interesting lately. Meh, I’m having a legitimate break. Hope you’re all having fun.

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Well, there were other things I was hoping to get around to blogging about today. But I’m only one (lazy) man, and the Randi-centric climate change fiasco is still rendering my gears thoroughly ground.

The man himself posted some follow-up remarks today. Here are some of the things he said, to clarify his position on the question of anthropogenic global warming:

My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.

So the scientific consensus position is, in Randi’s eyes, “quite probable”. That’s not denial. That’s a long way from denial. It’s not quite the opposite extreme, and he’s inching nearer to equivocation than most actual scientists on this point, but he’s still broadly, tentatively, accepting the science.

Regarding the Petition Project, of which he said yesterday: “I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid”, based on his “admittedly rudimentary knowledge”, Randi now says:

I admit that I was unaware of the true nature of the Petition, and I thank Dr. Plait — and several others — who pointed me to this reference and a much better grasp of the situation.

Phil Plait had pointed out to Randi that the project had been examined and found wanting by e-skeptic, among other sources. Randi seems to have taken this on board, expanded his knowledge to a slightly less rudimentary state, and adjusted his views accordingly. That’s not really what denialists do.

Many have commented that this is the kind of thing Randi ought to have known about before publishing his article in the first place, and I think they’re right. I think he made a mistake in conducting insufficient research before espousing a position. But being neglectfully unaware of evidence is a very different mistake from wilfully disregarding important evidence when it’s presented to you. I was willing to give Randi the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t be guilty of the latter, and so far it doesn’t seem that he has.

When the awesomely named James Hrynyshyn corrected him on some technical data he’d referred to, Randi responded:

I’m still trying to find where I discovered this gem of text. I suspect that “cooled” should have been “warmed,” but my currently chemo-altered encephalon stumbled… Both my enecephalon and I stand corrected.

Again, he made a mistake, and accepts the correction. He’s aware that recent health problems may have left him in a less than optimal condition to fully analyse all the data and make a truly effective skeptical assessment of the situation, and admits that he slipped up.

Some are saying that, if he knows he’s not on top form right now, he shouldn’t be posting controversial articles that go against the scientific mainstream and haven’t been rigorously checked for factual soundness. This may well be so, but it’s still not this particular criticism that’s bothering me.

What bugs me is the degree to which people abandon nuance, or any attempt to be measured, and are still calling him a denialist.

In particular, I think PZ is way off.

This was a case where Randi ought to have either a) admitted simple error, or b) recused himself from the argument, citing a lack of information.

Well, I’m pretty sure I saw him do the former several times, in today’s follow-up article, the one we’re both talking about.

PZ also talks about the “pernicious tactics” of denialists, and the way they…

…falsely state that there is a respectable middle ground of “the scientists aren’t sure” when the science hammers home over and over again that they are pretty damned sure.

And while this is certainly an infuriating tactic often used by the intellectually dishonest, I cannot fathom what he thinks Randi’s doing that’s so pernicious. I have every confidence that Randi is doing his best to call it how he sees it, and assimilate new information honestly along the way. This isn’t to say that how he sees it and how he’s calling it right now don’t have some serious flaws, but he’s clearly not trying to surreptitiously argue a case against global warming and disguise it with insincere skepticism. Sometimes people who say “I don’t know” actually don’t know.

I quoted the Lay Scientist yesterday, who was kind enough to comment here:

I don’t think Randi is a denialist…the real problem here isn’t that Randi has expressed doubt on climate change, it’s that he’s done it in such a poor way.

That seems like a better position from which to respond. Working from there, someone who knows more about climate change science than I do can give Randi some credit for most likely being smart but suffering a critical research failure, and help explain the facts. That seems the reasonable approach. Phil Plait is one person reacting well to all this. Error should certainly be called out, but some of the reactionary rhetoric going on isn’t helping, and the word “denialist” is tasting more and more bitter to me the more it gets carelessly bandied around.

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Okay, this is bugging me.

Last night was the first of this year’s run of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a science-themed comedy and variety show orchestrated by Robin Ince. The second show is presumably in full swing as I type this, and I’ll be going myself on Friday. Reviews of last night’s show were already plentiful when I checked this morning, because we live in the future now, where the internets know everything and information moves at the speed of lol.

And while people’s opinions of the comedy and music and overall presentation differ somewhat, everyone is agreeing on one thing, which made for the most remarkable section of the evening.

Johnny Ball has lost his shit.

I’d have to be a little older than I am to be among those who consider this man a childhood hero, but he’s definitely someone I remember seeing on TV maybe 15 years ago, and he was definitely awesome. There’s also no doubt that he seemed on fine form at Boffoonery a few weeks back. (Apparently I never got around to reviewing my evening there. Summary: it was great.)

But apparently last night he really went off on one, launching into an extended rant about how we’ve got it wrong about all this “global warming” nonsense. By all accounts it was an uncomfortable spectacle. Botogol wasn’t impressed even before he got onto global warming; misswiz reckoned that only a minority of the audience actively heckled, though the rest could muster no more than polite applause when he finally left; the New Humanist found it a surreal moment in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable evening; and comedy website Chortle talked a surprising amount about science, and seemed among the least concerned of the commentators that he wasn’t actually being funny.

I think this latter was actually the main complaint for most people. Nobody was shouting or booing at him until he was already well over his allotted time, and it sounds like he was droning on without being very entertaining. I think a crowd in a good mood, like this lot probably were, could tolerate someone with some kooky bad science for ten minutes if it was at least sort of funny. But it sounds like it wasn’t funny, and after it had gone on for ages people started using the lack of funny as motivation to start heckling him for being wrong.

Of course, there’s also the assumption here that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify that I’m not seeking to cast significant doubt on this assumption. From the informed responses I’ve heard, it seems that all Johnny Ball had last night were over-simplified arguments that fail to make a significant scientific case, and have already been refuted by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

But I’m not one of those people. I still have to defer to the scientific consensus on this kind of thing. When looking at the facts of the climate change debate, I can’t distinguish at a glance the sound science from the ideology-driven nonsense. If Johnny Ball is deviating from the position generally held by most scientists, that probably means he’s done more research into this than I have. He’s probably also still wrong, but how many people in the audience would really have been able to explain why?

Having said that, I’m not in a position of complete ignorance. I do know some things relevant to the issue of climate change. I know that science is awesome, that rigorous application of the scientific method is our best hope for approaching any sort of truth, and that there is currently an overwhelming scientific consensus which tells us certain things: that there is something going on with our planet’s climate which we need to be aware of, which we need to start taking some kind of responsibility for, and which we need to start considering how to respond to if we want this ball of rock floating in space to remain in any way a comfortable place to live.

If Johnny Ball also knows those things, I’m very doubtful that he also knows enough other secret scientific information, which the majority of actual scientists don’t seem to have picked up on yet, to support his position.

But – and here we finally get to the part that’s really been bugging me – I don’t necessarily think Johnny Ball is a denialist. I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s an ideological nutjob who can’t be reasoned with.

The point is even stronger in the case of James Randi.

This whole thing really kicked off after Randi, the man for whom the term “arch-skeptic” may very well have been invented, published an article on this subject. Representative of the general reaction from the skeptical community is PZ Myers: James Randi joins the ranks of the climate change denialists. The Lay Scientist was even harsher.

Here’s an extract from a quick back-and-forth I followed on Twitter earlier, between Brian Thompson and PZ:

AmSci: Randi may be wrong, but anyone who says “I’m not sure” isn’t a denialist.
PZ: Wrong. That’s a standard pose by the denialists!
AmSci: That’s because they’re posing. Randi isn’t. There’s a difference between honest doubt and dishonest doubt.

I think that Brian’s (AmSci’s) initial statement is somewhat over-simplified in the other direction, but he’s only working with 140 characters. And his latter response is exactly right. It’s infuriating when 9/11 “truthers”, or Moon landing hoax conspiracy nuts, or Glenn Beck, take some insanely contrary position, make a stream of ludicrous arguments against a well established idea, and respond to all rational argument by insisting “Hey, I’m just asking questions“. But the reason it’s infuriating is that it’s being used as a ploy, and it’s transparently obvious that their feigned na├»ve innocence is a front for a position they’ve already committed themselves to.

I don’t see any reason to suppose that Randi is being so disingenuous, or that he deserves to be bundled into the “denialist” camp because of this article. I’m going to go through what he says paragraph by paragraph and see if I can find anything truly objectionable. Follow along here.

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us…

This is literally true. Randi’s not denying that the scientific process of peer review is the best way to approach the truth, but pointing out that the human element is always going to be fallible and subject to natural human biases, however much we strive to overcome them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…

This paragraph just reports some facts about who’s saying what – the IPCC “has issued several comprehensive reports” on their position, while The Petition Project also exists with a certain number of dissenting voices. No conclusions are drawn from this data yet.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus…

This whole paragraph seems to be a perfectly sensible description of the scientific method, and the “humility in the face of facts” approach to understanding the Universe. Can’t see any problems here.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Still uncontroversial. He’s not trying to undermine the value of science, like many anti-science loons who like to point out that science has been wrong about stuff before, and claim that therefore it can’t be trusted. Science’s ability to respond to its mistakes is its greatest strength. Randi gets this.

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts…

This, I suppose, is the bit that’s got everyone all a-fluster. And I’ve got to say, I was expecting worse. I mean, he’s a denialist, he’s joined the fringe cranks, he’s “barely coherent”? I’ve understood every word he’s said so far. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but come on. Disagreeing with you does not equate to being incapable of effective communication.

“I strongly suspect” is a carefully measured phrase, and he’s well aware of the rudimentary nature of his knowledge. He’s looked at the situation, borne in mind that he’s not an expert, and formed his own summary, while seemingly retaining the capacity to learn more about it as his understanding develops. At least, that’s what I take from phrases like “this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data”, anyway.

It appears that the Earth is warming…

The next few paragraphs are simply about the data we have, and not too much about what anyone thinks it means. The atmosphere is 0.04% carbon dioxide, and CO2 is a vital molecule for plant life. Nobody’s saying that this disproves anything. It’s just background info.

At the end he starts leaning toward an actual conclusion again:

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

Some people are reading this as if he’s trotting out the tedious old line so elegantly summarised at ifglobalwarmingisrealthenwhyisitcold.blogspot.com. I don’t think that’s his point at all, though. Okay, the thing about more people dying from cold than from heat doesn’t seem pertinent – I don’t think anybody’s saying that global warming’s bad because the sun’s going to boil people alive – but it’s a piece of data, not a philosophical opinion or practical conclusion. He clarifies it a little further down:

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is Randi’s value judgment on what seems most important, when all the problems facing the world are considered. That’s his personal judgment call. It’s not mine. (Mine is to mostly hold back and tentatively do what the clever people tell me.) But neither, as far as I can tell, is it one driven by an ideological opposition to climate change science, or by a political agenda, and neither is it held with any measure of arrogant certainty.

Randi’s a smart guy. He has an excellent track record of being honest, interested, and well versed in critical thinking. He knows about being wrong, and being fooled, and science, and questioning everything you think you know. Perhaps he’s been insufficiently diligent in following the good science through, on this occasion, and not performed a proper examination of how the scientific consensus came to be so strongly supported. But a lot of his biggest fans and fellow arch-skeptics seem fine with immediately deciding that he’s cast his lot in with the “deniers” and that there’s little more to be said about it, as if he were suddenly a tragically lost cause.

I don’t know much about Johnny Ball, but if there’s anyone I’d credit with the ability to change his mind based on the objective assessment of new information, it’s James Randi. But I’ve seen a lot less helpful and informative presentation of new information than I’ve seen shouting about denialism, and it’s starting to make me think that Jack of Kent was right all along.

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Holidays are coming

Someone at work gave me a Christmas card today, which actually mentioned Jesus. Right there on the front, a blatant reference to religion. How dare people think they can push their mystical nonsense on me like that? I shall of course be suing the NHS trust for this inexcusable intrusion onto my personal freedoms.

Oh wait, no. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t a strawman on Fox News for a second there.

I’m looking forward to Christmas. (Don’t get me anything, though, unless you’re very directly related to me.) And obviously the Jesus stuff doesn’t mean much to me, but anyone’s welcome to enjoy it however you want. Tim Minchin offers an alternative suggestion for what meaning it has for some godless folk, for instance. Mitch Benn also articulated it particularly well in the Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.

And hey, if you find your own personal reason to celebrate this time of year in lingerie and sex toys, knock yourself out. Don’t worry about church leaders being furious. That’s their job, and the “War on Christmas” is made up by people in the business of outrage. Don’t sweat it. Happy Christmas.

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…I’m here saying stuff.

– Even if you’re not in the UK, you can sign the national petition for libel reform. Libel law in England is hideously stifling, and is becoming a global embarrassment. Parts of the US are bringing in new legislation specifically to protect people from libel tourism. Jack of Kent explains in more detail why it’s important. Go on, it’ll only take a sec.

– Hey, guess what, turns out chiropractic is still bullshit. As Harriet Hall points out, the history of the practice is 114 years of failing to demonstrate any of the fundamental principles behind it, in any way. But I’m less optimistic than she is in calling this “The End of Chiropractic”. It’s been unfounded nonsense since day one, but the lack of evidence hasn’t put the staunch fans off for 114 years. Why will a new paper saying the same things have any more dramatic an effect?

– It’s sentimental, I know, but this is the most important campaign ever. Screw that libel reform stuff. Tim Minchin needs to be the top-selling record in the country this Christmas. This is the song that came within a lolcat’s whisker of making me cry when I saw him perform at TAM London.

– And today’s xkcd depicts what is almost certainly the cutest stick-figure baby ever drawn.

Happy weekend.

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