UK Alternative Vote Referendum

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 7th, 2010

A bill to introduce AV to the UK parliamentary elections took another step forward recently. The battle lines are about to be drawn for and against in a public debate. There are a few points that are needed for an informed discussion of this issue.

The referendum should primarily be about AV verses first past the post (FPTP). Getting distracted by which party stands to gain or lose is slightly short sighted. If a particular party loses out, perhaps that just reflects the unfairness of FPTP? Also, objecting to the date is a slight distraction. Everyone gets a vote. The turn out is expected to be less in England, due to regional elections in other areas. If people can’t be bothered to cast a vote, they can only blame themselves. That’s how democracy by vote works, you get a vote and you should use it or lose it. It is rather patronising to say that the English are being hard done by, because they couldn’t be bothered to vote. On the other hand, if the turn out is too low, it does throw the legitimacy into question. That is a separate issue from differential turn out.

Of course AV has some disadvantages. But, to directly argue that AV has disadvantages to the conclusion that AV should not be adopted commits the perfect solution fallacy. It is like arguing “Seat belts are a bad idea. People are still going to die in car wrecks.” To properly argue for and against AV, the advantages and disadvantages of FPTP have to be considered. Then we can conclude that – overall – one or the other is the best choice.

The most persuasive argument for YES is that the balance of political power better reflects the balance of opinions and views of the electorate. This makes parliament more representative.

To most persuasive argument for NO, that I have heard, is stronger governments are more likely with FPTP and strong governments are more effective. But we have seen many “strong” governments in the UK that have a minority of the popular vote and therefore have questionable democratic legitimacy.


PS Mentioning, for search engine purposes: No2AV, Yes2AV

Museums, McCausland, Creationism, Truth and All That

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 14th, 2010

I certain news item prompted me to think about the role of institutions with respect to knowledge. The Northen-Irish Culture minister privately wrote to the Ulster Museum, calling for minority opinions to be represented in exhibits. This letter was leaked. The letter’s intent is fairly questionable: what does the minister know about running a museum? On the other hand, the minister claims it is a “human rights” issue. I am not sure that representation of public opinion, even of minority groups, in museums is a human right. Human rights protect individuals, not groups. However, cultural rights protect groups, but this concept is half baked IMHO. The minister included creationism as one of the minority views that should be represented. For many people, this makes his intellectual credibility self destruct. He has called for “reasonable discussion” of the issue, but refused to personally enter into further debate on creationism – which seems contradictory to me. But this raises an interesting question, who determines what is called “truth” at museums and institutions?

We might choose institutional gatekeeper based on our intended outcome of the institution’s functioning. This raises a new problem: who determines what role institutions have? But the choices include: experts (meritocracy), central institutions (propaganda), tradition, the institution’s members (democratic) or public opinion (widely democratic). I guess that history, being written “by the winners”, has a measure of political influence, this is probably unavoidable. But when taken too far, reality is rejected in an Orwellian fashion to suite the ruling party. This occurs in many places in the world, from Texas removing inconvenient topics in text books to North Korea in cloud cuckoo land and Turkey brushing genocide under the carpet. For museums, we also don’t particularly want democratic or public opinion deciding what is historical knowledge; a history based on public opinion would be similar to mythology. I hope that experts would do better. That last statement is a bit of a tautology: I am defining “expert” as someone who can arrive at correct historical knowledge. An obvious objection is “who decides who is an expert?”. This is particularly a problem since non-experts generally don’t have the capability to evaluate who is in expert.

This question is slightly easier in science. Although the peer review system generally works, it is not the fundamental consideration in determining what is scientific knowledge, rather it is falsificationism (if we allow Popper’s view). But other domains of knowledge of networks of peer review. But just because a school of knowledge has peer review, does not necessarily imply it is not quackery. (Of course, post-modernists might claim it is all just different points of view – well they should know all about “hot air”.) What is historical knowledge? Anyway, there is probably no point in getting as pedantic as Popper can be on the answer here. I don’t think there is a philosophically satisfactory answer, beyond existentially deciding it should be X, Y or Z. Anyway, moving on from these abstract considerations…

In my view, expert historians should determine what appears in museums – not politicians or public opinion! One necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for expects is intellectual integrity. “…and what is that?” No definitive answer again. But it might include: critical thinking and not over estimating what is currently known (personally and collectively, see also “Socratic ignorance”), as well as the limitations on what is knowable. Creationism fails spectacularly on these criteria. I guess my crude definition of intellectual integrity is scepticism (remember this is just my view). Of course, believers have their own criteria – but they fail my criteria. I have less objections to fideism compared to flawed arguments from evidence. Evidence based creationists and people with intellectual integrity are two non-overlapping groups. (Sorry to friends who might be offended, but it’s my sincere view). For more information, see Hume’s good ol’ Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Finally, if we admit creationism into museums, any interpretation however ridiculous could be included in museums. To put it another way, if we include the Christian creation, why exclude the Norse creation myth? or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If we do allow public opinion to determine historical knowledge, absurdity results. What the minister is tacitly calling for is only “serious” myths to be called history – the ones deemed “worthy” are decided by an outside force, religion and politics in this case. In other words, it is a call for propaganda to replace history.

Anti Citizen One

PS. A quote that I like, with debatable relevance:

And can you blame me, CLEANTHES, if I here imitate the prudent reserve of SIMONIDES, who, according to the noted story, being asked by HIERO, What God was? desired a day to think of it, and then two days more; and after that manner continually prolonged the term, without ever bringing in his definition or description? Could you even blame me, if I had answered at first, that I did not know, and was sensible that this subject lay vastly beyond the reach of my faculties?


Stuff I’ve Been Doing

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 26th, 2010

I was going to review Darwin’s Origin of Species, but there is little I can add to the popular perception of it. He does address most of the modern objections, so anyone who talks of “gaps in the fossil record” without bothering to read him are just lazy in not reading his actual point of view or are wilfully ignorant. Refreshingly, he does not pull punches against his own theory and states very clearly the types of evidence that would disprove his point of view – for example, fossils not in the appropriate geological order or a single species originating simultaneously in two distinct areas. Many science writings don’t put the case against their view at all, or at least not as strongly, and properly, as Darwin. He the man.

I was invited to a bible study group, which was interesting as an outsider. They were much less “chapter and verse” than I expected. We discussed “love thy neighbour as thyself” and I made the point that what is meant by “love” is sightly ambiguous – in an interesting way. If it is taken in the “love unconditionally” sense, then it also is a commandment to love thyself unconditionally (and that is a rather big “if”). This might have been a pre-emptive strike against the idea of “total depravity”, but that particular issue did not come up. I decided against expressing Nietzsche’s “be not considerate of thy neighbour! Man is something that must be surpassed” view – that would not have been well received!

I attended the Big Libel Gig, which was a awareness raising, comedy event. It featured a few science writers and several comedians who were critics of alternative medicines and superstition, including Simon Singh who is being sued because he criticised chiropractors. The issue is it costs a vast amount to defend a libel case, even if vindicated and is therefore a way of large organisations to silence their critics. I also saw Brian Cox (for the second time) and Ben Goldacre. The whole event was very “yay for empiricism, science and naturalism” and “boo for alternative medicine”. I was strongly reminded of that world view in a rap song by Baba Brinkman (and is based on a Jay Z song). The video editing is very slick. I don’t normally listen to rap but its a good summary of the main themes.

I have two books by Karl Popper on order. I am looking forward to that. I am bogged down in Capote’s short stories at the moment. I have also been trying to explain the is-ought problem to people but most people just don’t get it. What did I miss? 🙂

Anti Citizen One

PS Since we are on the topic of ultra-naturalism, and if you prefer folk to rap, you might like this: Creation Science 101

PPS The philosophical issues around evolution are more than adequately covered on talk origins.

Nocebo Effect

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 15th, 2009

Interesting piece in the New Scientist about Voodoo. For people who find it hard taking such a belief seriously, an interest comparison to modern medicine is made:

Despite the growing evidence that the nocebo effect is all too real, it is hard in this rational age to accept that people’s beliefs can kill them. After all, most of us would laugh if a strangely attired man leapt about waving a bone and told us we were going to die. But imagine how you would feel if you were told the same thing by a smartly dressed doctor with a wallful of medical degrees and a computerful of your scans and test results. The social and cultural background is crucial, says Enck. New Scientist


Mini-Review: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 8th, 2009

I have recently finished an audio book of the Extraordinary Popular Delusions. I wanted to state a few thoughts but a more full analysis already exists elsewhere.

The chapters on bubbles has a certain immediate relevant with the current economic situation in stagnation. People would do well to remember this process has been going on for hundreds of years. In fact capitalism requires this growth and shrinkage as a self control machanism. (A separate point might be made on if capitalism is supportable environmentally.) To complain of recession is similar to complaining that it is raining. Rain is necessary (if weather/capitalism is necessary).

The work can broadly be divided into preambles of a delusion, the biographic history of the people in involved and the specifics of the belief. In some ways, exactly what was believed is less interesting than the other two since it sounds like the works of con artists on the credulous. The biography sections are interesting as the twists of fate can be gripping and spectacular. The preambles are enjoyable but suppose that the reader is more sceptical (and smug) than the victims in this history.

For example, of astrology, Mackay says:

How we should pity the arrogance of the worm that crawls at our feet, if we knew that it also desired to know the secrets of futurity, and imagined that meteors shot athwart the sky to warn it that a tom-tit was hovering near to gobble it up; that storms and earthquakes, the revolutions of empires, or the fall of mighty monarchs, only happened to predict its birth, its progress, and its decay! Not a whit less presuming has man shewn himself; not a whit less arrogant are the sciences, so called, of astrology, augury, necromancy, geomancy, palmistry, and divination of every kind.

The reproduction of endless lists makes the book is amusing as it is fairly pedantic. I will quote the list of divination methods as an example (quoted from Magastromancer by Gaule). Good padding to get the word count high too!

Stereomancy, or divining by the elements.
Aeromancy, or divining by the air.
Pyromancy, by fire,
Hydromancy, by water.
Geomancy, by earth.
Theomancy, pretending to divine by the revelation of the Spirit, and by the Scriptures, or word of God.
Demonomancy, by the aid of devils and evil spirits.
Idolomancy, by idols, images, and figures.
Psychomancy, by the soul, affections, or dispositions of men.
Anthropomancy, by the entrails of human beings.
Theriomancy, by beasts.
Ornithomancy, by birds.
Ichthyomancy, by fishes.
Botanomancy, by herbs.
Lithomancy, by stones.
Kleromancy, by lots.
Oneiromancy, by dreams.
Onomancy, by names.
Arithmancy, by numbers.
Logarithmancy, by logarithms.
Sternomancy, by the marks from the breast to the belly.
Gastromancy, by the sound of, or marks upon the belly.
Omphalomancy, by the navel.
Chiromancy, by the hands.
Podomancy, by the feet.
Onchyomancy, by the nails.
Cephaleonomancy, by asses’ heads.
Tephromancy, by ashes.
Kapnomancy, by smoke.
Knissomancy, by the burning of incense.
Ceromancy, by the melting of wax.
Lecanomancy, by basins of water.
Katoptromancy, by looking-glasses.
Chartomancy, by writing in papers, and by Valentines.
Macharomancy, by knives and swords.
Crystallomancy, by crystals.
Dactylomancy, by rings.
Koskinomancy, by sieves.
Axinomancy, by saws.
Chalmmancy, by vessels of brass, or other metal.
Spatilomancy, by skins, bones, &c.
Astromancy, by stars.
Sciomancy, by shadows.
Astragalomancy, by dice.
Oinomancy, by the lees of wine.
Sycomancy, by figs.
Tyromancy, by cheese.
Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or bran.
Krithomancy, by corn or grain.
Alectromancy, by cocks.
Gyromancy, by circles.
Lampadomancy, by candles and lamps.

The ideal of this book is perhaps Spinoza’s comment:

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

but the underlying message seems to be slightly judgemental and in agreement with Einstein:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.


PS What are the present day popular delusions?

How Truth Is Produced (An Example)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 11th, 2009

1. False information published on wikipedia
2. Newspaper publishes false information based on wikipedia article
3. Wikipedia is corrected to the original information
4. Wikipedia is updated to reflect the false information and cites the newspaper report as a source.

Balance is restored…

Also, public opinion may be substituted for wikipedia.

On Nihilism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 25th, 2009

I abandoned reading Harper’s “The Seventh Solitude” because it was doing my head in by its use of nihilism which was very different from my understanding of the term. There are two main definitions of nihilism, as far as I can tell.

The first is the rejection of objective moral truth. The simplest justification of this view is the is-ought problem, which argues that “ought” statements cannot be based on “is” statements. This inevitably implies that any objective meaning of life is meaningless or undefinable. By this definition Nietzsche can be said to be a nihilist.

One must stretch out one’s hands and attempt to grasp this amazing subtlety, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Twilight, FN

Kierkegaard objected to this view and implied “the eternal” was the only escape from nihilism.

If there is no eternal consciousness in a human being, if at the bottom of everything is only a wild ferment, a power that, twisting in dark passions, produces everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lies hidden between everything, what would life be then but despair? Fear and Trembling, SK

This view also highlights the common belief that nihilism is accompanied by anomie, ultra-pessimism or “immoral” behavior. I stumbled across a strange online manifesto for nihilism which uses this form of nihilism as a positive force – and I thought is website was unorthodox…

The second definition of nihilism, as used by Nietzsche, is “depreciation of life” or “will to non-existence”. Nietzsche labels any idea that implies that non-existence is preferable to existence as nihilistic. The aim in his philosophy is to make life possible without resorting to nihilistic concepts. The act of valuing metaphysical realities as higher than apparent realities was his chief objection to religion, as this necessarily devalues the apparent/realist reality.

Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self; the heavenly by the love of God. St Augustine

Nietzsche’s view of moral relativism is interesting as it treats the various moral systems as wholly within a realist world. I think of this as a type of moral/physical monistic realism. Metaphysics is not invited to the party.

There are more idols than realities in the world […]

To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all […] Twilight, FN

This ironically makes Nietzsche a nihilist by one definition and an anti-nihilist by the other! I am still trying to think of catchy terminology to clarify types of “nihilism” but without success. With the use of alternative terminology, the former definition is simply moral relativism and the later is anti-metaphysical realism.

Anti Citizen One

PS I just finished reading Fear and Trembling and Tipping Point. I need to read some fiction next! Bring on the Murakami!

PPS In comedy form, nihilism is taken to an extreme in the film “The Big Lebowski”: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski! Nothing!”. This simple claim shares elements of both forms of nihilism.

“Think of the Children”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 5th, 2008

“No amount of entertainment is worth the life of a child!” This is perfect political rhetoric, guaranteed to get the Question Time studio audience clapping their support. But it also explains why that same audience is beset by so much “nanny state gone mad” regulation. What’s more, it is wrong. Anyone who thinks that no amount entertainment is worth the life of a child either overvalues children or undervalues entertainment. Jamie Whyte, The Times

Something that made me laugh: Charlie Brooker on Aspirational TV. The last quote reminds me of this blog: “Far better is to sit here and sneer at the lot of it. Isn’t it? That’s what we like to do, isn’t it? Aye? Have a good sneer, aye? Aye, that cheers us up! Aye?”


Ideology Trumps Facts

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 25th, 2008

Participants were shown news reports that contained inaccuracies, followed by a correction. The news reports were not real, but were presented to the volunteers as coming from either the New York Times or Fox News. Again, the findings suggest that facts that contradicted political ideology were simply not taken in; if anything, challenging misbelief with fact checking has the counterintuitive effect of reinforcing that misbelief. Ars Technica

Is the Scientific Community necessary for Science?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 7th, 2008

I was reading the Gene Expression blog and it claims that generation of scientific knowledge is generated through the scientific community acting as the overall arbiter and gatekeeper. Without this collaboration, science would not function. Individual scientists are not fully rational and presumably the rationality of the scientific process arises through ‘”wisdom of the crowds” at its apotheosis’.

Because at the end of the day science does not rely on the rationality of a scientist. It relies on the cumulative and self-correcting rationality of the scientific community.

[…]science is such a superior method of extracting information about the world around us[…]

[…]the power of science arises from the intersection of the communal wisdom of tens of thousands of individuals over decades with the nature of the subject at hand. Gene Expression blog

The author implies that no individual scientist is capable of really doing science in isolation.

Granted, there are individual geniuses of great brilliance such as the great Isaac Newton, but the outcomes of his dabbling in alchemy and scriptural hermeneutics should go to illustrate that cognition applied to a fool’s errand only results in glorious foolery.

I picture this as an infinite amount of research monkeys almost randomly striking keys on type writers and the gate keeper of science, the community, allows anything that happens to be scientific. As Newton said, possibly with sarcasm, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Peer review and the scientific community is not what distinguishes science from other areas of knowledge. After all history community decides what is good history knowledge, theology community decides what is good theological knowledge and the law community decides what is good law knowledge. Since they have similar process for publication and dissemination of knowledge, why are they not also “a superior method of extracting information about the world”?

What distinguishes science from other fields of knowledge is empiricism. Production of scientific knowledge occurs when we use our personal experience about the world to form predictive theories and we attempt to verify them. When Galileo looked through a telescope and saw dots circling Jupiter and him realizing they were moons was a scientific achievement. Since there was no community, it is clearly false to say the community is necessary to progress science.

Referring to the scientific community as this monolithic truth machine is not helpful considering that good science is decided by a very small subsection of the community who have the relevant background knowledge to review cutting edge research. In some fields, everyone knows the other researchers by name. I will admit that science has progressed more quickly because collaboration and teamwork is more efficient than solo working. But teamwork it is not necessary for science to occur.

Anti Citizen One