Sunday, 29 June 2008

The stupidity of good people

I don't maintain that all good people are stupid, but many of the noisily good appear conspicuously stupid, as they participate in one moral panic after another.

Just now there is a moral panic about Zimbabwe.

I think that many people cannot face the fact that cruelty corruption and misgovernment are universal, and even extreme forms of those ills are very common. It is therefore consoling to concentrate on the affairs of one small ill governed country, to attribute its ills to a very small number of people, and to plan to remove them. The recently favoured scapegoats have been Yugoslavia and Iraq, and now it's Zimbabwe. I offer no excuses for the misrulers of those places, but do deplore concentration on them almost to the exclusion of other news.

It helps people forget the misdeeds of countries that are too powerful to be confronted like China, an autocracy that oppresses about a fifth of the world's population, and the USA that has forced corruption and organised crime on the entire world with its absurd drugs war.

Mathew Parris recently wrote an excellent article about Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A strange percentage

From time to time reference is made to a report by a number of scientist asserting
that there is:

"a 90 per cent chance that humans were the main cause of climate change"

I'm not at all sure what that means, mainly because I can't imagine any method by which such a figure could be calculated.

In everyday conversation someone might say "90% certain" to indicate moderate, but not complete confidence in the truth of the proposition in question. However, in scientific discourse as opposed to casual chatter one expects a number to be the result of some calculation. The choice of 90 indicates a reason for thinking it is greater than 89 and less than 91.

I assume that the 90% is meant to be a probability, so the claim is equivalent to:

"The probability that humans are the main cause of climate change = 0.9"

I think that such a use of probability is untenable.

In the 1930's and 1940's philosophers of science, including some scientists in their philosophical moments, tried to solve the notorious Problem of Induction by assigning probabilities to hypotheses. After fierce controversy in which Sir Karl Popper was prominent, those attempts are now generally accepted to have failed. I consider the matter in chapter 6 of my Notes on Philosophy.

I feel a general unease about the discussions of climate change.

It is difficult to distinguish change in climate from fluctuations in weather. Such a distinction would require careful statistical analysis, yet much of the discussion is conducted like the evangelical campaign of a millenarian sect, complete with denunciations of any heretics who dare to express any doubt. That is not the behaviour of honest scientists.

On the other hand the theory of climate change is supported by what I like to call double verification. As well as statistical data that seems to point to some degree of change, there is independent evidence of a mechanism which one would expect to produce such a change, namely increases in the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

I wonder how accurately one can predict changes in climate. The weather is chaotic, so it is worth considering the possibility that climate, when it varies, also does so chaotically. However as climate is a sort of average of weather over moderately long period, chaos in weather does not in itself imply chaos in climate.

I believe that something is going on, though I'm not sure precisely what. People would be wise to brace themselves for a shock of some sort, yet to keep an open mind about precisely what form that shock might take.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Double Death ?

I bought some fly spray today and noticed that it claimed to 'kill bugs dead'

How else could it kill them ?

I find it amusing to invent meanings for apparently meaningless collections of words, and found 'killing dead' quite stimulating.

Perhaps it means killing beyond hope of resurrection. Plato thought all living things have 'souls' which can be reborn in bodies attuned to the merit or otherwise of their previous lives. Perhaps mine is a Platonist fly spray that puts an end even to the cycle of death and reincarnation.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A strange urge to share one's misfortunes

I've just seen a report that "A third of gay men who know they are HIV positive are still having unprotected sex"

See this article on the BBC site.

I particularly noted:

"According to the survey, those who knew they were HIV positive were statistically more likely to have unprotected sex than those who did not."

For a moment I imagined patients, overjoyed at the discovery that their disease can be controlled by drugs, crying 'Goody, Goody, now I have plenty of time to infect someone else', but I don't suppose that many are as frank as that, even to themselves.

Much more likely than conscious malice is casual aversion to thought, and especially to precise scientific thought, an aversion defended, if at all by, some piece of ridiculous prattle which the more sententious may refer to as their 'philosophy of life' and which might include phrases such as 'if it's going to happen, it's going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it' or 'science isn't everything; I'm interested in people, not machines and test tubes'

It appears that an unintended consequence of the development of drugs to treat HIV may have been an increase in the rate of new infections.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


I was very depressed to see the following in the press recently:

"Children should no longer be taught traditional subjects at school because they are "middle-class" creations, a Government adviser will claim today.

Professor John White, who contributed to a controversial shake-up of the secondary curriculum, believes lessons should instead cover a series of personal skills.

Pupils would no longer study history, geography and science but learn skills such as energy-saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes."

Note the evasive language with obscure or question begging terms like 'middle-class' and 'civic responsibility'

I shall concentrate on the first, which is often used without any indication of its precise meaning or relevance to the subject under discussion.

'Middle-class' is often used as a term of disapproval by people who consider it important to assert that they themselves are 'left wing', and I get the impression that they object to people who try to be honest and polite, to save and generally to order their finances prudently.

In summarising the results of market research, the term 'middle class' tends to be applied to professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, accountants academics, and to the self employed. In that sense of 'middle class' the people concerned include those whose careers are most dependent on extensive education, so that in a sense education must be largely 'middle class'. To disapprove of such people and the education that produces them comes near to disapproving of civilisation itself.

John White's proposals amount to teaching children his opinions while denying them the knowledge on the basis of which they might form their own opinions. A man who appears to disapprove of careful rigorous thought wants to to exclude such thought from education.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Dr. Who sems to have improved

The last instalment let us into the secret only slowly, and I thought the hints of horror adequately fulfilled by the 'piranhas of the air' eating the living flesh down to the skeleton. Conservation of mass is a problem, but I'm prepared to overlook that.

There are still secrets to be revealed. Who are the little girl and her associates and how are they linked to the library?

Will there be complaints that it is too frightening? I hope that if there are they will be disregarded. Any story exciting enough to be worth following is likely to give nervous children nightmares, just as one of the criteria of an effective medicine is that it is labelled unsuitable for children.