an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

who says women should be modest?

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Does my body look too real in this?

Does my body look too real in this?

The French government is copping lots of flack for its ban on face covering in public, and rightly so, for outright bans are rarely effective, and this one is seen, rightly or wrongly – and probably rightly – as discriminating against Moslem women and the burqas that some of them wear.

However having said that, I’m no fan of the burqa, or any form of dress that sharply divides women from men (I love women in suits, and I wish I had the courage to wear skirts in public – I’m still considering buying one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook recently). But the burqa seems particularly regressive, and it’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s an outfit favoured by the Taliban and the Islamist Saudi government. Of course there are many variations of Islamic head-wear for women, but according to the women themselves, from what I’m always hearing, they choose to wear these head trappings as a sign of modesty.

It seems to me that modesty is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ term for these women, because modesty’s a virtue, and who’d criticise a woman for wanting to be virtuous? However, given that men and women are equal in intelligence and ability, I see no reason whatever for modesty to be a woman-only virtue. So why aren’t men wearing burqas? It isn’t a rhetorical question – I note that there’s a movement in Iran for men to wear hijabs in support of female associates targeted by the government there for being ‘improperly dressed’. Government imposed modesty.

This kind of modesty is of course highly dubious, it’s about not putting yourself forward – for education, for advancement, for leadership. It’s about knowing your circumscribed place. It’s a shame because the term ‘modesty’ has I think a value that has been demeaned by this more recent cultural usage. The modesty I value is where people tend to avoid trumpeting their achievements, however impressive those achievements might be. This kind of modesty is obviously not gender based and surely has nothing to do with head coverings.

However, this modesty-in-women malarky is about more than just trying not to be seen as, or even not to be, a great achiever. It’s about sexual modesty, and that’s what the covering is all about. One of the key features of patriarchy is controlling women’s sexual freedom. It really is about women as objects which need to be hidden from the lusty urges of male subjects, though women themselves are subjects only insofar as they must effectively hide or cover themselves from male appetites, otherwise they’re blameworthy and need to be punished.

So all this stuff about female headcovering is essentially about female sexual control, which is of course most effectively achieved if females internalise the idea and exercise the control themselves, thereby assenting to and bolstering the patriarchy that deprives them of sexual and other freedoms. Banning these head-coverings isn’t the solution,  though it might be necessary in some places for practical purposes. What we need to do is win the intellectual argument against the stifling restrictions of patriarchy, and engage women on the hypocrisy of female sexual modesty where there is a different standard and expectation for males.

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm

a few words on Donald Trump and democracy

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Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.

The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.

So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…

So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.

This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.

Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.

I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.

It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.

Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.

Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.

Plus ca change...

Plus ca change…

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2016 at 9:55 am

The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

it’s all about evidence, part 2: acupuncture and cupping

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a picture of health

a picture of health

Okay, having been sick myself with my usual bronchial issues, I haven’t made much progress on researching the ‘alternative’ treatments offered by Wesley Smith and his colleagues at the Wellness Centre. I must admit, too, that I’ve found it a bit depressing focusing on these negatives, so I’ve been working a bit on my Solutions OK blog (a few posts still in preparation) which focuses on being positive about global issues.

So before briefly dealing with acupuncture, I’ve discovered accidentally through looking up Mr Smith that ‘wellness centres’ or ‘total wellness centres’ are everywhere around the western world, including at least one more in Canberra itself. It seems that this is a moniker agreed on by practitioners of holistic medical pseudoscience world-wide, to create a sense of medical practice while avoiding the thorny issue of medicine and what it actually means. But maybe it does partially mean treating people kindly? I’m all for that. Laughter is often quite good medicine, especially for chronic rather than acute ailments.

It’s an interesting point – ‘alternative’ medicine is on the rise in the west, and the WHO informs us that by 2020, due to its own great work and that of other science-based medical institutions, the proportion of chronic ailments to acute ones will have risen to over 3 to 1. It’s in the area of chronic conditions that naturopathy comes into its own, because psychology plays a much greater part, and vague ‘toxins’ and dubious ‘balance’ assume greater significance. That’s why education and evidence is so important. There are a lot of people out there wanting to smile and seduce you out of your money.


There’s no reason to suppose acupuncture is anything other than pure placebo. It’s similar to homeopathy in that it proposes a treatment involving physical forces that, when tapped, can produce miraculous cures, and it’s also similar in that these forces have never been isolated or measured or even much researched. In the case of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, its inventor, conducted ‘research’, but with no apparent rigour. See this excellent examination of his approach.

Acupuncture posits Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) as an energy force – apparently invisible and undetectable by mere science – which operates under the skin and is ‘strongest’ at certain nodes where experts insert needles to stimulate it. There’s not much agreement as to where exactly these nodes are, how many there are, or how deep under the skin they’re to be found. Is everybody’s Qi the same? Is the Qi of other mammals identical? If you haven’t enough Qi, can you have a Qi transfusion, or will you be contaminated by the wrong Qi and suffer a horrible death? Amazingly, acupuncture practitioners have no interest whatever in these life and death questions. Why has nobody thought to operate on a patient and withdraw a sample of her Qi, considering that the stuff has been known about since ancient times? It’s a puzzlement. And with that I’ll say no more about acupuncture.


Cupping, or cupping therapy, is fairly new to me – I mean I’ve heard about it over the years but I’ve never bothered to research it. It was apparently used in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and it’s considered a part of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). How it got from Egypt to China is anyone’s guess, but when used there, it’s associated with our old friend, the non-existent Qi. Yes, according to TCM, much disease is due to blocked Qi, and cupping is one way to fix it.

Briefly, there are two kinds of cupping, wet and dry, with wet cupping being the more ‘invasive’ and used for more acute treatments. The idea is to create a vacuum which draws the skin up in the cup and increases the blood flow. The cup, or the air inside it, is heated, and when the cup is applied to the skin and allowed to cool, the air contracts, ‘sucking up’ the skin. With wet cupping the skin is actually punctured, so that those nasty but never-quite-indentifial ‘toxins’ can ooze out. By the way, next time you go to your naturopath to get your toxins removed, ask them for a sample, and don’t forget to ask them to name those toxins. Perhaps you could look at them under a microscope together.

There’s very little in the way in the way of evidence to support the effectiveness of cupping, and as you might expect, the best ‘evidence’ comes from the most poorly controlled trials. Serious and obviously dangerous claims have been made that cupping can cure cancer. Here’s the American Cancer Society’s response:

“There is no scientific evidence that cupping leads to any health benefits….No research or clinical studies have been done on cupping. Any reports of successful treatment with cupping are anecdotal. There is no scientific evidence that cupping can cure cancer or any other disease.” 

If cupping was effective, this would be easily provable. No proof has been offered in thousands of years, and there’s no credible scientific mechanism associated with the treatment. You’ve been warned. It’s your money. Why hand it over to these parasites?

it’s all about evidence – part 1

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I wrote an open letter to a homeopath recently, and received an interesting response, which I’ve promised to deal with publicly. My letter was sent by email at the same time that it was posted on this blog, and this was followed by another couple of emails back and forth. Here they are.

Wesley Smith to myself, April 13 2015

Hi Stewart

I thank you for the courtesy of bringing your article to my attention.

Can you please publish the following corrections to your blog:
To the best of my knowledge, Wesley Smith has never made any claim to be a medical practitioner and I wish to correct any inference in my article “An open letter to a Homeopath” that Wesley Smith misrepresented his qualifications or is not suitably qualified under Australian law to practice or write about complementary medicine. At the time of publishing I was unaware that Wesley Smith is a AHPRA registered Chinese Medicine practitioner (CMR0001709253). Furthermore I withdraw any implication that the phrase “the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired” may suggest that Wesley is not of sound mind, or is not fit to either educate people about or practice complementary medicine. Furthermore I acknowledge that I have no knowledge of the appropriateness or otherwise of the qualifications of any of the practitioners at the Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre and therefore I withdraw any inference that any of Live Well’s practitioners may be practicing in their chosen fields without appropriate qualifications.

Stewart I have absolutely no interest in debating you, please advise me when you have published the corrections.

Kind regards

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 18 2015

Hello Wesley
At no place in my blog post did I write that you claimed to be a medical practitioner, I simply pointed out that you were not one, as far as I could ascertain. Whether you (or your colleagues) are permitted under law to practise complementary medicine is neither here nor there, and I didn’t address that matter in my article. My concern is to point out that homeopathy is not a valid treatment, a view with which the NHMRC concurs. Nor are the other treatments I mentioned in my piece, none of which have scientific evidence to support them. I will of course not be making any changes to my article. Of course it doesn’t surprise me that you absolutely don’t want to debate me, as it would absolutely not be in your interest to do so.
Stewart Henderson

Wesley Smith to myself, April 20 2015

Hi Stewart

I would have had absolutely no concern if you kept your criticism focused on homeopathy or acupuncture. I don’t agree with you but I’m hardly going to loose sleep over that.

My concern is that you were lazy with your research and published your opinions as if they were fact. You also weakened your argument when you made it personal by disparaging me, Live Well and it’s practitioners. Not only is that sloppy writing and a lazy way to make an argument it is also defamation. I have given you the opportunity to make the appropriate corrections which you have rejected, therefore I will pursue the matter via legal action.

Stewart, my research into your background tells me that you have an arts degree, it’s interesting that you choose to write about a topic for which you seem to have no qualifications. Apparently you work, or have worked at Centacare in Adelaide? Their website homepage states “we believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity.” Sounds like great advice and perhaps a tenet you personally would do well to reflect upon especially when dealing with people with whom you disagree.

Kind regards

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 23 2015

Dear Wesley
Thanks for your response, which I will be posting in toto on my blog in the near future, together with my response. Your complete lack of interest in addressing the matter of evidence, which was clearly the issue of my blog post, is well noted. I don’t wish to have a private email correspondence with you, as I’m interested in complete transparency and openness. I’ll address all your ‘concerns’ on my blog, with my usual gusto and good humour.

So now we’re up to date, and I’ll try to suppress the sense of disgust and contempt I feel for this individual, and deal with the issues.

Firstly, let’s look at Wesley’s email number 1. It is, of course, intended to be threatening – ‘make these corrections to your blog, or else…’. The first ‘correction’ is to my ‘inference’ (it looks like old Wesley has been consulting a lawyer) that Wesley has been claiming to be a doctor when he isn’t. As I pointed out in my response, I made no such inference. The point is, when someone heads up an institution called the ‘Live Well Spa and Wellness Centre’, any reasonable soul might expect that individual to be a medical practitioner, working with a staff of medical practitioners. In fact that was exactly what I expected (oh and I think a court of law would agree, Wesley). Imagine my surprise when I found that there were no MDs on the premises!

The second ‘correction’ he wanted was the removal of the phrase ‘the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired’, because it suggested he wasn’t of sound mind. I’ll look more closely at that ‘depth of crazy’ shortly, but first I’ll make the obvious point that people believe all sorts of crazy things (though they don’t usually make their living out of them) – that the moon landing was a fake, that September 11 was an inside job, that vaccines cause all sorts of diseases, etc, but we don’t think they should be committed, we just try to get them (usually unsuccessfully) to think more reasonably. I’ve tried to do this with Wesley by pointing out the absurdity of homeopathy from a scientific perspective – again unsuccessfully, because he’s completely unwilling to even discuss the matter.

When I wrote of the ‘depth of crazy’, I really meant it, and this is not my opinion. My opinion isn’t worth a pinch of shit, actually, and nor is Wesley’s. All that matters is EVIDENCE.


Get it, Wesley?

So let’s do a review of the treatments Wesley’s clinic, or whatever he calls it, offers.


I gave a fairly full account of homeopathy here, where I referenced Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, Chapter 4 of which gives an even more comprehensive account of the pseudoscience. I’ve also written more recently about it here, and of course in my criticism of Wesley Smith. I’ve also referenced Wikipedia’s excellent article on Homeopathy, and while I’m at it I’d like to defend Wikipedia as an excellent, and well-referenced source of reliable scientific information. If you feel unsure about what it presents, you can always check the references for original sources. I should remind readers, too, that Wikipedia has been put under pressure by practitioners of ‘holistic medicine’ to give more credence to their methods, and its founders and gatekeepers have heroically refused. I won’t go into detail here, but the story is well-presented by Orac on his Respectful Insolence blog.

So I’m not going to rehash the absurdity of homeopathy here, but since Wesley makes the claim that I was ‘lazy with my research’ and ‘published my opinions as if they were fact’ (when in fact I focused entirely on the NHMRC’s comprehensive and negative findings regarding the practice), I will give here a list of just some of the books, academic papers, scientific articles and government and medical society factsheets that report negatively on the multi-million dollar homeopathy industry, and pseudoscience in general, as well as the major figures in debunking medical pseudoscience. They’re in no particular order.

Dr Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, esp Chapter 4 ‘Homeopathy’ – Dr Goldsworthy works for the NHS in Britain and is a broadcaster, blogger and writer on science-based medicine

Raimo Tuomela, ‘Science, protoscience and pseudoscience’, in Rational changes in science.

Kevin Smith, ‘Homeopathy is unscientific and unethical’ Bioethics Vol 26, Issue 9 pp508-512, Nov 2012

Stephen Barrett, M.D, ‘Homeopathy, the ultimate fake’, on Quackwatch – a well-referenced site, but note the hilarious-sad reader responses!

Orac, aka Dr David Gorski – Gorski is a surgeon and scientist, and writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, which deals mostly with the health claims of pseudo-scientists. His posts on homeopathy are too numerous to mention here, just type in homeopathy on his blog.

Edzard Ernst, “A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy”, and “Homeopathy: what does the ‘best’ evidence tell us?’ – Ernst, a former professor of complementary medicine, has published innumerable articles on the subject in academic journals. He co-wrote Trick or treatment? with Simon Singh, which deals critically with homeopathy, acupuncture and various other pseudoscientific treatments. His emphasis on scientific evidence has made him many enemies among the CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) camp.

The Cochrane Collaboration – an independent, non-profit NGO – partnered since 2011 with the WHO – in which over 30,000 volunteers work together to provide the best healthcare evidence.

Shang et al, ”Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy”, The Lancet 366 (9487): 726–732 – This study, conducted by a number of scientific collaborators, is regarded as one of the best and most relevant studies available for proof of homeopathy’s lack of efficacy. To quote from its conclusion: ‘Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects’.

World Health Organisation – the WHO has warned against the use of homeopathy for major diseases, though, generally speaking it has taken a softly, softly approach to the pseudoscience, presumably for political reasons. Here and here are reports about the WHO’s warnings. 

NHMRC – Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. It has conducted a comprehensive review of homeopathy, which I reported on in my criticism of Mr Smith’s ‘wellness centre’.

Science-based medicine and the FDA (the US Food and Drug administration). The Science-based medicine blog, contributed to by a number of writers, is dedicated to expose as quackery everything that Mr Smith and his ilk are promoting. The report linked to above criticises the FDA for abdication of responsibility in dealing with homeopathy. It also points out that American pharmacists are calling for tighter regulations. Homeopaths have had it too easy for too long. The FDA is finally beginning its own investigation into the pseudoscience.

I could go on – there are many many more articles and sites I could mention, but you get the point. Homeopathy is a joke, and there are many videos poking fun at its ‘science’ – for example, here, here and here. A movement designed to expose its fraudulence, the 10:23 campaign, had people ‘overdosing’ on homeopathic pills, which usually have warnings about dosage levels on the bottles(!) And yet we still have people buying into this shite – quite possibly in increasing numbers.

I don’t know Mr Smith personally. It might be that he’s a very nice if deluded fellow who treats his clients very well, adding to the placebo effect of his ‘remedies’. The placebo effect appears to be very real and we’ve only just begun to investigate its power. On the other hand, Mr Smith may be a charlatan who is cynically exploiting the vulnerability of his rich but deluded patients – his ‘wellness centre’ is in a leafy suburb of Canberra, not exactly the poorest region of Australia. Of course it’s more likely that he’s a bit of both – we deceive others best when we’ve already deceived ourselves.

However, to judge by his email responses, Wesley isn’t as much of a sincere believer as he should be, because he’s far far more concerned with protecting his reputation and with making threats, than with exploring the evidence, and thence, the further application of these homeopathic treatments (I mean, if the ‘like cures like, in infinitesimal doses’ system works, then why couldn’t it cure every cancer known to humans?). In my earlier post I suggested to him an exciting project of getting his fellow homeopaths and their satisfied clients together to ‘crowd fund’ research which would prove homeopathy to be true once and for all. And yet Wesley doesn’t even effing mention the idea. AMAZING!!!!

 Well, not, actually. Mention this idea to any homeopath, and the response would be the same. They’re totally uninterested in any real research. Testimonials and anecdotes are enough for them. They just want the evidence to be less rigorous – less real and more ‘imaginary’.

Wesley has made threats about defamation, presumably because I wrote that he’s mired in crazy – which he is. This post is already too long, so I’ll investigate the other crazy treatments he and his team offer in later posts, starting with acupuncture. But as to his threats, the man must be living on another planet if he’s not aware of the many websites, some of which are mentioned above, dedicated to exposing the pseudoscience practiced by people like himself, for financial gain. They generally use far harsher language than I have. If you’re going to set up a practice devoted to procedures which seem to share only one feature – that none of them are accepted as established science – then you’ll need to develop a thicker skin, even if you can’t develop any sensible arguments to support them.

And one more thing – Wesley has tried to cast aspersions on me as a mere English graduate. I think on my ‘about’ page I describe myself as a dilettante, which most certainly and proudly is what I am. However, as a blogger, I suppose my official position is that of a journalist. Freelance of course, with the emphasis on ‘free’, as I’ve never earned a cent from it. No defamation action could ever succeed against a journalist who’s trying to expose ‘sharp practice’ through the investigation of evidence, but perhaps Wesley thinks he can intimidate ‘small fry’ like me with his threats and arrogance. I don’t get much traffic here because I’m hopeless at and positively resistant to networking. But I do know how tight-knit and supportive the sceptical community is when anyone tries to threaten it as Wesley has, because I’ve been observing it for years, and if Wesley tries any further intimidation, I suppose I’ll have to pull my finger out and start letting people know what’s happening. It’ll probably do me a power of good.

Anyway, in later posts I’ll be looking at acupuncture (briefly, as I’ve already dealt with this one before), cupping, kinesiology, bowen therapy and other treatments offered by Wesley and his team.

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.


At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.


The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

a couple of controversial subjects

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Our state government has, surprisingly, ordered a Royal Commission into nuclear power, which will bring on the usual controversy, but everything I’ve read on the science and energy front suggests that our energy future will rely on a mix of sources, including renewables, clean coal (if that’s not an oxymoron), nuclear energy and perhaps even fusion. Fukushima scared everyone, but it was an old reactor, built in the wrong place, and nuclear technology has advanced considerably since then. I hope to write more on this, probably on my much-neglected solutions ok? blog.




VLAD SOKHIN These men call their gang “Dirty Dons 585” and admit to rapes and armed robberies in the Port Moresby area. They say two-thirds of their victims are women. Photo taken from The Global Mail


I was shocked to hear the other day about people (mostly women, but also children) being accused of witchcraft/sorcery in PNG, right on our doorstep, over the past couple of years, and hunted down and brutally slaughtered, often in bizarrely sexualised ways. Somehow this story has passed me by until now. The country, or part of it, seems to have been gripped by a witch craze, like those that broke out in Europe from time to time, especially in the seventeenth century, not really so long ago. And they fizzled out as mysteriously as they burst into being. In fact the USA’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry was reporting on these horrors from back in 2008, with some 50 victims claimed for that year. The article ended on an optimistic note:

Papua New Guinea is in dire need of skepticism, education, and legal reform. It appears that the latter is finally happening. These latest horrific killings, and no doubt the ensuing media outrage, have prompted the country’s Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission to create new laws to prevent (or at least reduce) witchcraft-related deaths.

However, this 2013 article, from the sadly no longer extant Global Mail, indicates that the problem is far more deeply-rooted and long-standing than first thought, and it’s mutating and shifting to different regions of the country. Brutality is on the increase, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but above all by massive social dysfunction, with children being regularly indoctrinated in methods of public torture. Sanguma, or sorcerers, are usually blamed for any deaths, and gangs of unemployed men (and almost all the men of the region are unemployed) go hunting for them amongst the most marginalised and unprotected women in the community. The article makes for harrowing reading, going into some detail on the suffering of these women, and highlighting the intractability of the problem. There are heroes too, including Catholic priests and nuns working at the coal-face. Unfortunately, tossing around terms like skepticism, education and legal reform won’t cut it here. This is a problem of deep social malaise, suspicion, superstition, poverty and despair that will take generations to resolve, it seems.

Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 2

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Feeling almost apologetic for dwelling on this for too long, with so many more important themes to tackle. Of course some out there, especially in those most heatedly devout parts of the USA, might consider that no more essential topic exists than giving proper due to the supernatural creator of the universe, but I would disagree, and I suppose here’s where I get to say why.

I was discussing Vandergriff’s third contention, that ‘Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism’. Here is his second argument for this:

God is the best explanation for why space-time and all its contents exist, rather than nothing.

Of course space-time has only existed as a familiar concept for about a century. It may well be replaced, or amended, by another concept, and I’m sure Christian theists will find their god to be the best explanation for that too. He’s amazingly flexible that way. Vandergriff here talks of a proof of supernatural causation under the presupposition that the universe is eternal but necessarily caused. It’s rather an unsurprising one drawn from a famous conundrum of quantum mechanics, that quantum indeterminacy can only be resolved through observation. The observation ‘collapses the wave function’. Vandergriff, or the person who posits this ‘proof’, then leaps from quantum states to the state of the universe. ‘What, or who, collapses its wave function?’ Vandergriff asks. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly valid leap. It seems more a desperate grab for an analogy. I’m not that boned up on my fallacies, but this might be the fallacy of the excluded middle, inter alia. I mean, ‘quantum/universal indeterminacy, therefore god’ does seem to take for granted an awful lot of in-between stuff. The supposed essential recourse to the disembodied mind again suggested here fails as Vandergriff has not presented any argument to show that this ‘disembodied mind’ is anything more than an abstract object. The play of such words as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ really get us nowhere in providing answers to the very interesting questions around the beginnings of our universe and the well-established weirdness of quantum mechanics, regardless of whether the two are related.

The third argument is taken directly from William Lane Craig:

God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

I’ve answered this claim from Craig here, though I’m amused at Vandergriff’s gloss, in that we’re still not sure that the Higgs boson has been discovered, as the data could well fit other scenarios. In any case, the main point about mathematics is clear. Mathematics seems highly abstract nowadays because over time and through painstaking human effort it has moved a long way from its beginnings. Mathematics developed as a tool to describe particular objects in general terms, that could be manipulated and developed, for example number, leading to multiplication, division, functions and the various forms of calculus. All of these, and further, developments make use of regularities, or explore regularities (some of which have as yet no known applicability). It’s hard to conceive of a physical world that has no regularity. All elements are describable, mathematically, in terms of their properties, which are regular, i.e. describable. Try to describe something that has no regularity at all. It would have no shape, no boundary between it and not-it. If this convinces you that a creator god exists, it’s likely that you were already convinced. As to a super-rational creator, which Vandergriff tries to point to, that would hardly be the brutal monster of the Old Testament who slaughters children and babies in a flood and supports the massacres of whole populations in favour of his ‘chosen people’.

Argument 4: God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe.

This is really just a repetition of the previous argument. The universe, to be physical (and therefore discoverable in terms of its properties) has to be regular. However, human development ‘at just the right time’ to discover the universe’s properties and origins  supposedly supports a fine-tuning argument, as developed by Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist who put forward this argument in the early nineties. The late Victor Stenger, among many others, has put these arguments to the sword. There’s also a problem with this and with other ‘best explanation’ arguments in that they are essentially self-refuting ‘first cause’ arguments. David Hume was one of the first to point out the deficiencies of such arguments centuries ago. Attempts to improve on them are well summarised and dealt with by the philosopher Theodore Schick here. To me, one of the best-arguments against fine-tuning relating we humans to the supernatural creator is its grotesquely overwhelming wastefulness. Why create a universe so enormously inhospitable to intelligent life throughout almost the entirety of its vast expanse in order to permit we humans to finally thrive on our small planet through a history of great suffering? A super-rational being could surely do better, and chance seems a much more coherent explanation.

Argument 5: God is the best explanation of why there are embodied morally responsible agents.

I presume Vandergriff is talking here about cetaceans. Or maybe not. In any case, the existence of such agents, he claims, is more probable under theism. Presumably his claim is based here on the idea that it would be more fun to create a universe with moral agents in it than, say, living beings who are little more than scuttling stomachs. Yet considering how enormously complex and diverse these scuttling stomachs are, it seems clear that, if Vandergriff’s god created them, he seems to have found them great fun. You can hardly argue with J B S Haldane’s remark that the guy has an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Vandergriff talks about the unique human ability for self-control and control over our environment because ‘our brains are the most complex things in the universe’. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t. This line has often been used, by Richard Dawkins amongst many other scientists, but always, as far as I’m aware, with the cautionary addendum ‘according to our current knowledge’. And our current knowledge of the universe, I and many others would argue, is minuscule, in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Vandergriff is concerned here to emphasise human specialness. He describes, without providing any names, how various physical scientists have been ‘stunned’ to discover that the universe must have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to provide for this embodied moral agency. Yet this moral agency appears to exist, to varying degrees, in a number of social species on our planet (which Vandergriff doesn’t acknowledge). In any case, I’m sure plenty of other prominent physical scientists could be found who are considerably less ‘stunned’.

Argument 6: God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths.

I don’t believe there are ‘necessary moral truths’, and I don’t find this a particularly interesting philosophical theme, though it obviously strongly exercises some philosophers.

In giving his example taken from Darwin and the behaviour of hive bees, however, Vandergriff completely misrepresents natural selection, comparing what natural selection ‘happens upon’ with the rational choices of human beings. I would strongly argue that there is more to natural selection than just ‘happening upon’ or ‘chance’ as theists like to describe it. Most theists like to think we’re rational moral agents guided by, or able to be guided by, their god; though how the god does the guiding can never be properly answered. Vandergriff cites the prohibition against rape as a necessary moral truth, but Christians have raped women throughout history, in times of warfare, just as readily as have members of other religions. Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare from nation to nation, because states have different laws, definitions, reporting methods and resources. It’s clear from even the most casual examination that cultural attitudes to rape vary widely. We don’t find a consistent or clear-cut prohibition against rape in the Bible. However in modern western countries, especially with the advent of feminism, rape has been raised to a higher level of seriousness as a crime. This hasn’t been driven by organised religion, so it just seems absurd to assert, or even to intimate, that the prohibition against rape is a necessary truth derived from a supernatural being.

Vandergriff talks about natural selection or evolution as being only conducive to our survival, and seems to find it unlikely that our ‘necessary moral truths’ or our aesthetic tastes or even such traits as benevolence or kindness could have been selected for, claiming that these qualities are unlikely under naturalism but highly likely under theism. Yet it’s abundantly clear that reducing the incidence of rape, developing better medicines, resolving conflicts by peaceful means, promoting sympathy for others, including those of other species, and exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in our personal lives is conducive, not only to our survival, but to our success and our enrichment. We’ve learned this, not through communication with spirits, but through honest examination of our own past behaviour as a species. It seems to me that it’s through these painstaking examinations that we’re learning to reduce our common misery and to promote our well-being. We’re learning from our mistakes, even if it’s a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. A thorough-going education system is essential in disseminating what we’ve learned from the past and carrying those gleanings into the future. It’s precisely because there are no necessary truths, because we could always go back to achieving our ends through brutality, dishonesty and blinkered self-promotion, that we need to maintain awareness of past errors, and of the complex needs of those around us and to whom we’re attached, including humans and non-humans.

Vandergriff has more ‘arguments’, which I’ll deal with next time, though I’m looking for ways to cut this short!

what can we learn from religion?

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Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.




Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am