Sunday, December 31, 2006

Four New Additions to my Blog Roll

All with some connection to the Guardian.

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science Blog
James Galbraith's Comment is Free Posts (James is the son of John Kenneth)
Conor Foley, who writes incredibly sensibly on Comment is Free about Latin America, aid work, and humanitarian interventions
And the splendid Pickled Politics (Sunny et al)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Toxoplasma Strikes Back

Yikes. Regular readers (I know, I know..) may recall my suspicion of the parasite Toxoplasma. Needless to say I'm even less impressed by this.

A common parasite can increase a women's attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.

I am going to resist the temptation to make any wisecracks about the high school I went to. I'm simply going to restate my claim that this parasite is too intelligent by half. (And more intelligent than at least half...must not make joke...must not...........)

God Strikes Back!

Right in time for Christmas, the New York Review of Books has a critical review of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion.' And, lest you think that the scientist writing the review is simply surfing the rising religious tide in his homeland, it's worth remembering that a similarly critical review of Dawkins was published in the NYROBs' sibling from the atheist side of the Atlantic.

I haven't read Dawkins' book but, from the sounds of things, he suffers from a similar sort of atheist certainty to that which has always irked me when expressed by Johann Hari.

The central point that both Orr and Eagleton make is that Dawkins doesn't really engage with sophisticated theology: he simply sets up a straw-god and proceeds to bayonet it. True, there are an alarming number of people who worship at the feet of that selfsame straw-god but if you are to argue, as Dawkins does, that religion is the problem per se, rather than simplistic takes on religion, it does seem somewhat inadequate not to have a tilt at the real thinkers in the opposing camp.

Eagleton also gets points poetic for his beautiful explanation of the interaction between reason and faith using the conceit of love.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Deft metaphors aside, I am not sure that Orr and Eagleton land quite as many punches as they think they do: from what I've heard Dawkins does a reasonable job of defending himself when he's actually debated in person. Nevertheless, the reviews make good reading.

To me, the main concern with religion is it's extremely problematic relation with power. If religion were, as it ought to be, a purely personal pursuit, it would be fine. However, almost as soon as religion was invented (or revealed) it has been used as a tool of power. As a means of oppressing women. As a means of controlling thought within societies. And as an excuse for subjugating other societies.

Clearly, as the past century has shown, getting rid of God has not even come close to resolving issues of power and people's power over others. (And here is were I think Dawkins is particularly mistaken: if you want to rid the world of human rights abuses you need to champion human rights, and foster the conditions where they flourish. Wailing about religion is simply tangential to this.) Yet, if we are to argue using the tools of reason, I am confident that I can - with a few preconditions - win the debate about whether we ought to respect human rights. If we are to argue using the tools of religion, this won't be the case - you can simply claim that God has decreed that human rights are bad, and that will be the end of the argument. We will have no ether across which we can measure the distance that our arguments travel.

That being said, the devil, for my my side of the argument, of course, is hiding in the details of my preconditions: increasing overall wellbeing say, or maximising capabilities, or liberty. Each of these requires, as far as I can tell, some small - erk! - leap of faith of its own. Enlightened self interest can get us some of the way there but it doesn't seem to me that we can reason our way to altruism or charity. Such positions must, I think, stem from another part of the the human whole. Not necessarily from god above, just not from reason alone.

The details are difficult. Definitely. Which is why, I suspect, that - short of apocalypse in the meantime - we'll be arguing these things for millennia to come.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Welfare and Well Thought Out Arguments

Polly Toynbee talks commonsense on welfare in the Guardian. She's writing about England, but much of this resonates with welfare debates in New Zealand too. Some good snippits.

"Work is the best welfare, a hand up, not a hand out" was New Labour's first mantra and it remains true for most people most of the time, but not all. This social contract has mostly been kept by both sides under Labour. Tax credits and benefits for children have doubled and, for the first time, pensioners are now less likely to be poor than the general population, thanks to pension credits. Fulfilling their side of the imagined contract, 70% of the long-term unemployed have taken jobs and there are now virtually no young long-term claimants, thanks to the New Deal.

But yesterday Hutton shook a threatening stick at those he regards as social-contract defaulters. He made a good case: one in 10 of those who draw jobseeker's allowance has spent six of the past seven years on benefits, yet in many areas there are unfilled low-skilled jobs alongside high rates of unemployment. If the jobs are there, why don't they take them? He picked on Glasgow, which has above average unemployment and twice as many unskilled vacancies as the national average.

Is it that simple? There is a very grey line between the plain idle and those who are illiterate, mentally unfit, psychologically odd, ex-prisoners, unattractive to employers, non-English speakers (Labour has stopped free English courses), drug addicts, alcoholics and other bad prospects. In Glasgow, for example, what are these vacancies? Mostly part-time hotel and catering, bar work and waitering with unsocial hours. Those running programmes to help the unemployed into work say these are student jobs, or for young foreigners: the hardcore unemployed are simply not equipped to do this work. Many live on peripheral estates miles out of town with no night buses back - a taxi costs three hours' work at the minimum-wage...

...But let's keep this in perspective: there are only 100,000 of these hard cases, and the jobseeker's allowance is a pathetic £57.45 a week, not enough to survive on. I tried, and fell into unavoidable debt within weeks. Those in debt fear taking a job as loans sharks chase them once they start earning...

...Meanwhile, the minimum wage is so low it can be impossible for those without children to work at a profit. Why work if it leaves you even worse off? The social contract says work is the best welfare, but for some it isn't. One reason why is housing benefit - the glitch in the system. Beveridge never solved it, Labour promised a review but abandoned it; yet losing housing benefit on taking a job is a great disincentive to work.

Look closer at housing and see the damage done by gross inequality, as wealth at the top stamps on those below. London has the highest unemployment, with half its children born poor. Yet it is also the richest place. This is no mere accident of Dickensian contrasts, but partly cause and effect. As the City reaps its £9bn bonuses, that money fuels an ultrasonic house-price boom. It's bad enough around the country at 180% up in the past decade, but far worse in London. Rents are sent sky high, making it impossible for the unemployed to lose housing benefit by taking a job. They will never own a shed in the capital as the gap yawns ever wider between the 70% homeowners counting untaxed winnings every month, while the rest and their children are consigned to social housing forever.

[Emphasis Mine]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Via Maxspeak, a nuanced article in the Washington Post (possibly free registration required) on what drives Chile's economic success.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The truths are out there...

Some of my best friends are 911 conspiracy theorists. We don't talk about it much - or, at least, I try and avoid talking about it, simply because I hate arguing with friends.

All the resulting bottled up counter-arguments probably contribute to the fact that 911 conspiracy theories really get my goat.

On top of enforced repressed skepticism on my behalf, one other reason that the theories bug me is because many of the people involved don't really seem that interested in the truth (now there's an irony given the name 'truthers'); instead their approach seems to start with the certainty that a conspiracy is a-foot and then involves finding every single factoid that - atomised and on its own - might provide evidence of this. They rarely, as Matt Taibbi notes, ever engage in trying to construct a plausible coherent alternative version events themselves. Indeed they don't even seem bothered when there own assertions contradict each other. Taibbi:

...9/11 Truth is the lowest form of conspiracy theory, because it doesn't offer an affirmative theory of the crime...Strikingly, there is no obvious answer to that question, since for all the many articles about "Able Danger" and the witnesses who heard explosions at Ground Zero, there is not -- at least not that I could find -- a single document anywhere that lays out a single, concrete theory of what happened, who ordered what and when they ordered it, and why. There obviously is such a theory, but it has to be pieced together by implication, by paying attention to the various assertions of 9/11 lore (the towers were mined, the Pentagon was really hit by a cruise missile, etc.) and then assembling them later on into one single story. But the funny thing is, when you put together all of those disparate theories, you get the dumbest story since Roman Polanski's Pirates.

The specifics vary, but the basic gist of what They Say Happened goes something like this: A group of power-hungry neocons, led by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush and others and organizationally represented by groups like the Project for the New American Century, seeks to bring about a "Pearl-Harbor-like event" that would accelerate a rightist revolution, laying the political foundation for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Your basic Reichstag fire scenario, logical enough so far. Except in this story, the Reichstag fire is an immensely complicated media hoax; the conspirators plot to topple the World Trade Center and pin a series of hijackings on a group of Sunni extremists with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. How do they topple the Trade Center? Well, they make use of NORAD's expertise in flying remote-control aircraft and actually fly two such remote-control aircraft into the Towers (in another version of the story, they conspire with Al Qaeda terrorists to actually hijack the planes), then pass the planes off as commercial jetliners in the media. But it isn't the plane crashes that topple the buildings, but bombs planted in the Towers that do the trick. For good measure -- apparently to lend credence to the hijacking story -- they then fake another hijacking/crash in the Pentagon, where there actually is no plane crash at all but instead a hole created by a cruise missile attack, fired by a mysterious "white jet" that after the attack circles the White House for some time, inspiring the attention of Secret Service agents who point at it curiously from the ground (apparently these White House Secret Service agents were not in on the plot, although FBI agents on scene at Ground Zero and in Shanksville and elsewhere were).

Lastly, again apparently to lend weight to the whole hijacking cover story, they burn a big hole in the ground in Pennsylvania and claim that a jet went down there, crashed by a bunch of brave fictional civilians who fictionally storm the fictional plane cabin. The real-life wife of one of the fictional heroes, Lisa Beamer, then writes a convincingly self-serving paean/memoir to her dead husband, again lending tremendous verisimilitude to the hijacking story. These guys are good!

Taibbi then follows this up with a truly hilarious fictitious conversation between Bush, Cheney and others which includes gems like:

BUSH: I'm a total idiot who can barely read, so I'll buy that.

Taibbi makes also makes the point that leftwing conspiracy theories not only divert energy from all the real issues that the left ought to be worrying about, but that they also provide the right with plenty of ammo with which to write-off the left in general. The prevalence of real conspiracy theorists makes it that much easier for the right dismiss a whole heap of other critics as 'conspiracy theorists' too.

Or as Christopher Hayes puts it in this, very thoughtful essay from the Nation:

For the [Bush] Administration, "conspiracy" is a tremendously useful term, and can be applied even in the most seemingly bizarre conditions to declare an inquiry or criticism out of bounds."
In his essay, Hayes goes on to highlight what he thinks is one of the key reasons for the prevalence of conspiracy theories: the credulous nature of much of establishment media.

The public has been presented with two worldviews, one credulous, one paranoid, and both unsatisfactory. The more the former breaks apart, the greater the appeal of the latter.

I couldn't agree more.

To Hayes' explanation of the rise of conspiracy theories I thought I'd add a couple more:

First, that modern government (particularly modern American government) is a beast with many, many of secrets tucked away. Too many, as John Ralston Saul points out in Voltaire's Bastards. Many more - and held much longer - than can be explained by the need to "keep things from the enemy". Keep things from the voting public more like it. And this alone, while not justifying the belief that the neo-cons dynamited the twin towers, does provide people with a perfectly good reason to be very skeptical of the powers that be. And all it takes is a few apparently damning factoids to carry people over the boarder from skepticism into conspiracy land.

Second, 911 and all that, has created a world where the answers for us on the left aren't so easy anymore.

True the United States is a militaristic super power, currently in the hands of a bunch of deranged neo-thugs, but the people they are fighting aren't exactly a charming lot either.

True, the erosion of civil liberties in many western democracies is a bad thing but, at the same time, the threat of terrorist attacks is real. Over-hyped, but real nonetheless.

Now for me personally, these trade offs (for want of a better word) didn't stop me from opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor do they stop me from believing that civil liberties are too important to surrender, but they do leave me feeling conflicted and unsure.

I doubt I'm alone in this, and my sincere belief is that, for many 911 conspiracy theorists, it is simply more comforting to believe that all the problems really do come from one side, and that there are not difficult trade offs to be made.

It's a very strange sort of comfort of course - as Hayes notes, "...if tens of millions of Americans really believe their government was complicit in the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens, they seem remarkably sanguine about this fact. By and large, life continues as before, even though tens of millions of people apparently believe they are being governed by mass murderers" - but it's a comfort nonetheless.