Tag Archives: Logical-Fallacy

America Scares Me

OK, I have finally torn myself away from the accursed Wii long enough to surf the internet, read some articles and comments and become quite worried about the future of the human race.  Before I am accused of massive hyperbole, remember America is the worlds only superpower and, like it or not, societal changes there radiate out across the English speaking world quite quickly. (Yes, I am looking at you Creationism).

It seems that, despite being the leader of the free world, a beacon of Democracy and willing to invade other nations who abuse human rights, the USA has a very ambivalent approach towards one of the most inhumane of activities – torture. I know I have talked about this previously, but reading through the comments on the USA Today letter reminded me of conversations I have had with people in the US, and gives an insight into how the government policies seem to be built.

First off my position on the matter: Torture is never, ever, acceptable. It is a war crime and the practitioners of such acts should be treated as international war criminals. Waterboarding is torture. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation” does not change what it is any more than calling my car a boat will make it sail. I can think of no (real) circumstances in which torture is justified. Saying torture is better than execution is farcical.  The idea that torture would be carried out in my name, or to protect some nebulous concept of my safety is abhorrent.

However, I consider myself a rational person and I am willing to explore viewpoints and opinions that differ from my own. It is possible that I could be wrong in my stance about torture so I will look at some of the arguments for it. For the purposes of this rant, I will use the responses to the, frankly, insane USA Today letter. From these it appears the following “justify” torture: (Some I will post in full, others I will try to identify the more coherent parts)

in the meantime…they saw off our heads…….while weak dems say nothing about that……why do dems defend these killers of U.S citizens is alarming…..shows there huge weakness for our security. (from wave who, unsuprisingly, has no friends but 5 recommends for this nonsense)

This makes no sense. It is nothing but an appeal to fear, wrapped up in some bizarre attempt to make 2+2 equal three hundred and eleven. But it is a common one so I will try to salvage some sanity out it and see if it holds any water.

It breaks down into a few parts. First off the claim that torturing people is the only defence against “them” sawing off American heads. Now, given that people in custody are no longer in position to weild a saw this is true, but there is no requirement to torture them for this. Has the mistreatment of people in places such as Guantanamo reduced the amount of beheadings of Americans in the middle east? Erm, no. So we can strike that part. The second bit is just a sign that wave is insane. Objecting to torture is not defending the killers of US citizens any more than not torturing murder or rape suspects is. Shall we advocate tortuing people suspected of drink driving (which kills many, many more citizens each year)? If not the argument makes no sense.

The next one hints at what worries me about society.

Why is this such a difficult question for you? Given the choice between the safety and security of my loved ones *and* subjecting a terrorist to a few moments of anxiety (enhanced interrogation techniques), this is an easy choice! Glycine

Oh my Thor. Worryingly this is an attitude similar to one I encountered in people I talked to during my visit to the US. It shows the horrific effect language has had on people. 24 is not real. People do not get up at the end of the show, take a bow and give a PR conference to promote the sale of their DVD. Torture is torture. The clue is in the name. Waterboarding is not a “few moments of anxiety.”

This whole bag of madness falls down on a few levels. First off, if it is so mild how can it work on embittered, committed jihadists? If it is so mild (I can generate more than a few moments of anxiety for most people going to an interview, let alone questioning by law enforcement) why is it called “enhanced interrogation?” Dispel forever the idea that waterboarding is tame. That any form of torture can be passed of as time and almost humorous. It is not. It is there to break a persons will in the shortest possible time. This is not something people ever fully recover from.

Equally sad is the loss of any form of “innocent until proven guilty.” It now seems that if someone thinks you are a criminal you are one and will be tortured until you confess. Sounds all very 21st century to me. The people subjected to torture by agents of the US government are not always confirmed terrorists. Some will be people who are massively unlucky. Is torturing them (which will provide no extra security to your loved ones) acceptable? If so, where do we draw the line? When do we stop torturing people on the off-chance they may know something which may help increase the security of your loved ones? Crucially, what happens when someone comes to torture you to protect their loved ones? Would you be OK with that? Even if you are actually insane enough to think that torturing people based simply on their nationality and skin colour is acceptable, you have to face the fact it decreases national security. For every person who is interned and tortured, there will be families at home who rail against the injustice. Mistreatment of prisoners is the greatest recruiting tool an insurgent or terrorist organisation can hope for. For every suspected terrorist you torture, you recruit four or five more into his organisation. How does this make any sense at all?

We have the token argument from insanity:

Torture like many evils will not ‘go away’ because do-gooders wish it so.
Which is worse: killing the enemy outright or keeping them for the duration in a POW camp? (or Federal prison?) Incarceration, even with three meals a day, a bible, a toilet, clothing, bedding, et cetera, is none the less, torture — but who gives a damn? Ronald David (who, amazingly, has 8 friends on USA Today. Wow).

This is no argument, its just mad ranting. Torture like any crime will never quite go away but does that mean we should accept it? Do we accept rape or murder? No. If someone abducted ten people from US cities and tortured them for a few months, they would go to jail or face the death penalty. If the government does it, its OK. Does that make sense? I just love the attempt to use a derogatory “do-gooders” term against those who oppose evils such as torture. I’d rather be a do-gooder than a do-eviler. Maybe its the atheist in me.

Comparing torture with incarceration is madness. Nothing further needs to be said. Everything else this nutter has written on this letter speaks of mental illness.

(two chestnuts from Crazyfun_22 who has 11 bloody friends) In addition to Michael, the other loons posting about waterboarding are also subscribing to something in either their water or thier “Pipe”. The waterboarding the japanese did is not even close to what we did following 9/11, those people were drowned in the process. Waterboarding that ends in death can and shoud be classified as torture…so put down the remote after you turn off MSNBC and look some stuff up from multiple independent sources and get your facts straight.

Right, so torturing someone and stopping just before they die is OK then. This is insane. Torture is torture. Murder is murder. You can torture someone to death which is both torture and murder. Its like saying raping someone but not killing them is OK. All this crazy makes my head hurt.

Lastly, all you people who are commenting on waterboarding being used to get info on Iraq and make an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection….WRONG….it was used to try and determine intel on potnetial threats to Americans…period. While I am sure Saddam was part of the questioning, it was for American’s safety…and that does include you loony bins.

Here we come to the basic claim that seems to sustain the support for torture.

Torturing person X (who is hopefully not the from the same ethnic or religious background as you) is acceptable if it provides actionable intelligence that can save lives of people you care about.

This argument allows Americans to condemn other nations who torture prisoners (because the information gained is not helping people they care about) while practising it themselves. It carries a strong moral appeal because, seriously, who doesn’t want to save lives. There is even a utilitarian argument that the suffering of the few outweighs the benefits for the many. You can see why so many people agree with this concept and, as a result, support the use of torture by agents of the government .

Sadly it is all nonsense, and for so many different reasons it is hard to know where to begin.

If we take the utilitarian argument first. You have no way of knowing if the information provided from the torture will save lives until after you have tortured the person. If you know in advance enough to make this call, you know enough to not need to torture the person. Without knowing this you have to react to everything the person says – including lies and confusion. This takes up resources and manpower better spent elsewhere. A committed jihadist could even use this to distract your resources from where they would be best placed. If you are tortuing someone who genuinely doesn’t know what you are asking, when do you stop? Do you wait until they make something up? Unlike Jack Bauer you have no way of knowing the veracity of what your victim is telling you. You may get the truth in the first 10 seconds (about how long I would take to crack) but would you believe it? Would you continue to torture until you broke them and they changed their story? In reality, unlike 24, torture is a good way of making somone say what you want them to say – nothing else.

Following on from this, if you torture the person and it turns out they cant give you useful information, what then? The argument that useful information means torture is justified now means this was not-justified. Do you proceed to punish everyone involved with the now-criminal act? Anything else means the utilitarian argument suggests all torture is justifed on the basis that an unknown amount of information gained may be useful – but this applies to everything. Maybe torturing you or your parents will be useful. How do we know until we try?

It strikes me people can be quick to come up with hypothetical situations where torture would be acceptable, as long as it is someone else on the receiving end. Knowing that no system is 100% correct, innocent people will occasionally get caught up, would you be happy if you were that innocent person? If not, then torture is not acceptable. If you feel you would be happy to spend five years in “enhanced interrogation” because you knew, deep down, it was making the world safer, then I think you are insane.

(ranting over, back to the Wii…)

I blame teh skoolz

On the Radio 1 news today there was a snippet (I am not going to look it up but it will be on the BBC website) about some truly stupid youngsters. Apparently, Police in Scotland have become the first in the UK to target people who admit to crimes on social networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook. (*)

Now, for me, I think this is a good idea. If people (mostly “yoofs” according to the news) are stupid enough to commit a crime and then boast about it online they need to be taken out of the gene pool urgently. One of the young lads interviewed had apparently put up pictures of himself in a balaclava carrying a knife. Why he went to these lengths to remain anonymous, then outed himself online is beyond me.

The most frustrating part, and a good example of how taking away the “classical” education has failed children was a young retard complaining about the police scouring social networking sites to find offenders. He actually had the gall to say it was an invasion of his privacy for the police to look over his Bebo page to find out what crimes he has committed. Flabbergasting.

For me, it weakens the real destruction of our privacy when people think things like this are an invasion of privacy. It is like putting a full page advert in a newspaper and then complaining that people reading it are invading your privacy. Idiocy reigns.

* Oddly I cant find this on the real BBC news so I may have dreamed it – but I hope not as I was driving at the time…

ID Cards for your own good…

Well, Orwell is still spinning in his grave. Despite some apparently premature optimism, it seems that ID cards are very much on the government’s agenda. Today’s news headlines have been very much about the “ID Card Rethink [bbc as example]” and how we are all going to end up with one.

This is all despite the House of Lords “setback” and the massive online YouGov poll that showed a significant percentage of the population were against the idea. To me, in addition to the hateful ideas of forced identity documents, the fact the government is able and willing to completely ignore over a million of the electorate’s opinions speaks volumes for how modern democracy works…

In a token gesture to people’s opinions, the government is planning to bring ID card by stealth in a phased manner. I assume the thinking is target the least popular / most vulnerable parts of society then, in a few years everyone will have come round to the idea and we will all carry one. Distasteful is an understatement.

In her speech announcing the new Identity Card plans, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith made the following statements:

I start from the premise that the National Identity Scheme is a public good.

Starting from a false premise is never going to lead to anything of value… This is largely, Smith saying the assumption was always we were going to have Identity Cards, like it or not.

As citizens, it will offer us a new, secure and convenient way to protect and prove our identity.

What is new about it? How is it more secure than, say, a passport or driving licence? Equally, how the **** does the existence of an ID card protect your identity?

And it will provide us with the reassurance we need that others who occupy positions of trust in our society are who they say they are as well.

This is odd, and the radio news made a big deal about this. What people who occupy positions of trust don’t already carry a form of ID? Lots of news sources go on about how Airport staff will be early ones to get them – oddly, you already need to have an ID card to get airside at an airport. What will have actually changed? Are the current procedures flawed?

Now, at this point I was going to do a line by line rebuttal of her claims but as they are all insane it will take much too long. Nearly every sentence she utters in her speech contains falsehoods and spin to trick people into thinking ID Cards will solve the worlds problems. They wont.

In an effort to be brief, I will try to address her main points.

Surveillance is everywhereFirstly, ID cards are supposed to be brought in to prevent crime and terrorism. Wow. If having to carry an ID card would prevent someone from being a terrorist, why are there still terrorists in the world? Same with crime. Neither activity will be deterred simply by the existence of a voluntary ID scheme. The best that could possibly be hoped for would be for a compulsory ID card, with fingerprint data, that may enable the police to catch people after a crime(*). In years gone by crazy ideas were often supported with a “wont anyone think of the children” (as parodied by the Simpsons), now we have Prevent Terrorism as the buzzword. If the government want to pass laws people will hate it is always linked to prevention of terrorism. Didn’t anyone watch “In the Name of the Father?”

Secondly they are supposed to prevent Identity Fraud. How this happens is never, ever, mentioned and, frankly, defies even the most cursory examination. Again reading through Ms Smith’s speech is an exercise in logical fallacies, there are more appeals to fear than I care to count. The phrases basically go along the lines of criminals steal identities so get an ID card. This sounds good and there is a half-hearted example of one person who defrauded the state out of £2.5m over five years. Compare this to Northern Rock who have taken over £100billion from the state in as many months. Who is the worse criminal? On a more personal level, ID theft is a terrible thing and I genuinely feel for anyone it happens to. Would the national ID card prevent it? Ninety nine times out of a hundred the answer is no, and in the other one is it a maybe.

CCTV Cameras Cover the CountryFor example, if some one hacks your Ebay account and runs up charges would an ID card have protected you? Same with anything online (where most ID theft apparently takes place) and in the offline world it only works when it interacts with the government. Someone can steal your ID and apply for credit cards, loans etc., and unless the issuing authority has access to the central database there is no way to find out.

This leads to the other problem. The database itself becomes a single point of failure. All a person needs to do is attack that to gain a legitimate, but false, identity. As recent months (and years) have shown, the Government is a largely inept organisation when it comes to protecting the data it holds. The news has covered dozens of “accidents” where huge amounts of personal data have been lost into the public domain. Do you feel safe thinking that a group with this track record will hold the gold standard of data about your identity?

Ms Smith has considered this and some reassurance is given:

Private firms will be encouraged to set-up “biometric enrolment centres” where passport and ID card applicants will be fingerprinted. [BBC news]

WTF! To make matters worse, this personal and private data will be collected by non-accountable organisations who have, by definition, their primary goal of making profit. By Toutatis this is madness. Here we will have the situation where staff on a minimum wage will be responsible for inputting your ID details and making sure no one else can get access to them. People who can be bribed with the price of a pint down the pub. Terrifying.

When Ms Smith talks about how they will protect the data the ID system will store, she manages to confuse me as to how it will work:

 The way in which we are designing the National Identity Register, with separate databases holding personal biographic details physically and technologically separately from biometric fingerprints and photographs, will greatly reduce the risk of unauthorised disclosures of information being used to damaging effect. …(followed by)…  I should make it clear that none of the databases will be online, so it won’t be possible to hack into them. [BBC transcript]

Now call me an old fashioned security professional, but there is a bit here that makes sense. By preventing people from getting access to the data you really do reduce the risk of unauthorised disclosure. However, and this shows more madness, if huge segments of society can’t access the data it is useless. The idea as I see it is that you go into the bank to open an account and show them your ID card. They scan it and compare it to the record of you. If it matches you get account. Seems easy, except now it looks like the bank wont have access and even if they did there is an air gap between the two technologies.

How is it supposed to work?

Lastly (phew, I hear you cry), the introduction by stealth. This shows the government KNOW this is an unpopular idea and it would never get off the ground if they tried to roll it out now. Instead they are going to play on the “white working class fear” of the Evil Immigrants by making them carry ID cards (why not force them to carry a sign round…(**)). What effect this will have is beyond me because if I was an immigrant and challenged by “authority” I would simply say I wasn’t an immigrant. Prove me wrong. Next come the “UK citizens and EU nationals who work in ‘sensitive’ airport jobs” who already carry ID cards and aren’t likely to complain, but again the question is “why?” Finally in 2011 it will be an opt-out option on passport renewals. Passports already have biometric data and are acceptable as proof of ID the world over. Why do we need another form of ID?

That is it in a nutshell, though. Why on Earth do we need another form of ID?

(*) remembering to account for the error bars of partial fingerprint matches when you have a database of 60+ million entries, and hoping the criminals are too stupid to wear gloves…

(**) Hmm. This seems familiar. I wonder why…

Commenting on Comments

I was not planning to do a post on the nonsense being spouted by the comments on the John Humphrys article over on the Times Online (see previous post), but the idiocy and madness some of them presented couldn’t be ignored. Please forgive me, Zeus.

In no particular order we get this wonder from “Timothy” in Ross-on-Wye:

Christianity can be tested by whether the Resurrection occurred or not (1 Cor15). Secular and hostile sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, the Talmud and the Toledoth Jeshu testify of the crucifixion of Jesus and the empty tomb. That blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side indicates heart failure and we can be certain He was dead. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead where is His body? The disciples started proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem where the Priests could have produced the body if they knew where it was, ending Christianity. Why would the disciples steal Jesus’ body?

Blimey, where do I start. First off, shall we look at motivation? The disciples had a vested interest in Jesus’ body not being found, so there is motive for them to ensure the priests didn’t know where the body was.

More interestingly shall we look at the witnesses (Secular and Hostile sources)? For example, Tacitus was born in about AD56 (56CE for purists) and is unlikely to have travelled to the middle east until around AD76 (or 76CE if you prefer). Even allowing for some major errors on the date of Jesus’ birth, it is unlikely that Tacitus was around to see the event and if anything, he is repeating a secondary or tertiary source. Lucian is even more removed as it was around AD125 (125 CE) he was born. Josephus has potential, being born around AD37 (37 CE), but that is stretching things.

So basically this discounts the secular sources as evidence. The Toledoth Jeschu is equally flawed as it was written around the second century after Jesus was supposed to have been born – again this means it is the result of secondary or tertiary sources AT BEST. I will ignore the Talmud because I don’t know it well enough to comment on how it describes Jesus’ life.

From “D Walsh” in Skipton we get:

For the intellectually honest, atheism is also a matter of faith. It is difficult to prove a negative. There is no absolute proof of the non-existence of god(s), though the lack of proof for his/her/their existence is suggestive. Atheism is therefore a belief, rather than a lack of it.

This is a tired old argument. Lack of belief is not a belief unless you have the preconceived idea that the thing being believed about exists. For example, if I chose to believe the keyboard under my fingers right now didn’t exist, this would be an item of faith. While it is unprovable, I have met no (sane) adults who believes that Faeries do not swap children at night. Atheism is not a matter of faith. Ever.

“Virginia” in Australia writes:

The atheist are the stupid ones. They refused to believe that they will burn in hell for all eternity. There is really no point in trying to convince these people as they are the minority as God puts the belief in us when we were created. That is why there are very few geniune atheist if the truth were known. The physical body dies but the spirit lives forever. So everyone has eternal life, it is where you will spend it. Imagine a world full of atheist? There will be no accountability charity justice compassion purpose worth morals mercy regrets guilt sin compassion and hope. Who do think run orphanges, soup kitchens, red cross, Salvation army, life line, op shops, youth camps, and many other charitable organisations? The atheist? CERTAINLY NOT.!! The atheists think about no one except themselves and if the world is full of them, it would be like HELL. So dont be so proud to be one of them, we dont envy you, we feel sorry for you that your life is so worthless.

This is what I love about the loving, caring, compassionate theists… It is a good job that is only Atheists who can be frowned upon for speaking out. It is good job the world isn’t full of evil atheists, isn’t it… “Chie” in Tokyo continues the false reasoning argument about Atheism:

Agnosticism is the only logical position a thoughtful human being can adopt. Once understood properly, it ends the futile and barren debate about whether God exists or not. Atheists (if by this is meant people who believe that there is no God) are in just as a rationally untenable position as believers. This is why it has to be said that Dawkins, although interesting on religion, shows his intellectual limitations. It’s probably due to the influence of Western mind training, which tends to take a binary approach to everything.

Again, this is nonsense. No matter how much woo you try to wrap around the situation, nor how much patronising you do the situation remains the same. If Chie is trying to suggest God is in a quantum superposition along with Zeus, Hera, Thor, Hemidal, Loki, Monkey, Fox, Rabbit and every other god humanity has come up with over the aeons, then he is deluded. A similar argument is suggested by “Richard” in Bexhill, Essex, which proves the point about people from Essex being thick.

“Eugene” from Heildelberg, Germany (I strongly suspect he is an American serviceman, and he reminds me of one I worked with many years ago) writes a diatribe which finishes with the patronising:

If you are truly intelligent, you will come to this coclusion. GOD IS MORE PROBABLE THAN NOT.

Nonsense. He doesn’t even say which god he thinks is more probable than any of the others. It is nothing but an appeal to mystery in funny clothes.

“Warren Toles,” from Canada, goes a long way to prove that Theists really are stupid and opens his comment with:

It is interesting that there are so many brilliant people in this world that will believe Darwin’s THEORY of evolution and completely dismiss the the Biblical account of creation. This can only be accounted for by the fact that those taking this position have not studied either the Bible or Darwin’s life story including the fact that he dismissed his own theory of evolution prior to his death. And yet we continue to teach Darwin’s Theory of evolution in our schools and Universities as though it is pure fact without any doubt attached to it.

It is great isn’t it. First off it is painfully obvious that Warren has no idea what a “theory” of science actually means. I assume he wants alternate theories of gravitation, thermodynamics (etc) to be taught as well. Add in the nonsense about Darwin’s dismissal of evolution on his death bed and you can see why Atheists laugh at the way Theists believe things without questioning… Shame on you Warren, the internet is a great tool – you should use it to learn new things.

“John W” from Oldham lives in a bleak world and writes:

As soon as you say there is no god, you say that there is no such thing as life or as a person. You reduce everything down to its component parts. You say all our thoughts are self interested delusions, lacking any intrinsic value. You forever steal the smile from the babies face, remove the beauty from the sunset and kill all that is noble in the world.

Wow. My being an atheist seems to stop my children smiling… Oddly this is not the case. I find it worrying that some people really do think they only reason they can be happy in this life is because some invisible person has promised them something in an imaginary afterlife. If this wasn’t a world religion, these people would be in a lunatic asylum. I think the idea that people are only “noble” because of god is what really steals the nobility of their actions. It makes them a vessel for others and implies that without Big Brother watching them, they would really be stealing and raping. I find that a sad, sad world.

“CC” from Cardiff falsifies himself with this:

Having read Dawkins God Delusion out of interest, I am still not convinced about religion or atheism. There are strong arguments for atheism in the book, but there are also some weak arguments. Having a scientific background and a career in engineering, I like to see real evidence. Maths and statistics can be used to ‘prove’ anything academically. So what are the weak arguments for atheism:
1. There must be a planet of other beings out there STATISTICALLY. Ok, but then if those planets do exist then the laws of evolution would apply and we might expect that one of them might be more advanced than we are…so where are they?
2. Although we as humans have made fantastic progress is medicine, we are still only tinkering. Until we can CREATE life from the basic elements I remain unconvinced that we can ever do it.
3. The human state of consciousness, how a body gets life in it cannot be reproduced by humans ‘artificially’.
I feel that if I say I am an atheist then I it would be naive

Wow, he claims to have a scientific background but demonstrates no understanding of science or mathematics. Maybe it is true what they say about engineers… Statistically, in an infinite universe, there are an infinite number of planets out there with life. Basic principles state we (on Earth) are not in a unique position regarding time or place, so you must assume that there are, indeed, some alien civilisations who are more advanced than ours. However, and this is important, these basic principles also assume that the laws of physics hold equally at all points in the universe (keep this in mind). Now, we know that statistically, the chances of another planet near to Earth having an massively advanced alien civilisation is low so we can dismiss them, this means that the statistically probably aliens are going to be quite some distance from Earth, the nearest potentially habitable planet is 60 light years away. Why must all Alien civilisations be capable of Faster than Light travel along with a burning desire to visit Earth? The rest of his “reasoning” is even more dribble.

I will finish (for now) with this head ache inducing comment from “William J” in Oban, Scotland: (Dont you just love the case choice…)

The fact we can debate, discuss, and not only argue about belief,but even in extreme situations go to war over beliefs, in anyway detract from belief:
In fact, rather it proves that belief is Truth.
Richard Dawkins is in fact a Belief Meister He Believes in Non-belief. John Humpry is Still Seeking He Believes in Seeking.
I Believe in God.
The only problem occurs if any of us try to force our beliefs upon the other two. I recently read somewhere that Charles Darwin is indirectly responsible for The Horror of The Nazi Gas Chamber and The Second World War. I found this Idea Abhorrent yet then no sooner had this thought registered,when I remembered The French Revolution was a product of Militant Aitheism. Yet There Again , our “Glorious Revolution” The English Civil War was Based upon The Opposite Belief incidentally it Was The Scottish Covenanters who having handed King Charles The First over to The Parliamentary Army were so Horrified at The English Action, The Crowned Charles

Toutatis knows what he is trying to say here, but I will point to this as further evidence as to the IQ of theists and atheists. Read the comments, they are priceless. Atheists point out logical flaws and are accused of “hateful attacks.” Theists demonstrate ignorance (and more than a little hate towards atheists) and everyone gushes about how wonderful they are.

[tags]Religion, John Humphrys, In God We Doubt, Belief, Christiantiy, Islam, Judaism, Society, Culture, Darwin, Dawkins, Evolution, Creationism, Bible, Tacitus, Toutatis, Zeus, Hera, Loki, Times Online, Nonsense, Delusion, God, Logic, Logical Fallacy, Fallacies, Atheist, Agnosticism, Atheism, Theism, Woo, Lucian, Josephus, Toledoth Jeschu, Talmud, Flaws, Idiocy[/tags]

Missing the Point?

I was browsing through the Times blogs yesterday and I came across one by John Humphrys (which was actually an extract from “In God We Doubt” about to be published by Hodder & Stoughton) carrying the title “In God we doubt” with the following tagline:

He went looking for God and ended up an angry agnostic – unable to believe but enraged by the arrogance of militant atheists. It’s hard to see the purpose of the world, he says, but don’t blame its evils on religion

As you can see, there was no way I wasn’t going to read this!

Overall, this is a reasonably well written piece. While it isn’t good enough to make me interested in buying the book it may well appeal to some people with wavering faith and the writing style is certainly inoffensive on the whole. John Humphrys is basically explaining how he went from being brought up a good Christian to his faith wavering and finally he “deconverted” to agnosticism. I wont go into the nonsensical idea that “agnosticism” is anything other than a complete wet lettuce of a philosophical idea, which has at its root the basic assumption that God does exist but is insufficiently proven for worship, that is for another day.

There is one, possibly major, problem with the whole piece and (I suspect) the line of reasoning from which it flows. After a lengthy and introspective introduction, Mr Humphrys identifies what he sees as “the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt.” (It is interesting that he makes a list of seven points, but again this diversion can wait). His reflection on “militant atheists” produces the following list of characteristics, faults and problems: (These are opinions which “militant atheists” are supposed to hold to)

1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.

2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.

3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.

4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.

5. They have been bullied into believing.

6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.

7. Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.

After sharing his earth shattering wisdom the reader is further encouraged to discover each point in detail. It is here that I largely gave up on any hope for him. The explanations and rebuttals follow, now with my rebuttal of his rebuttal…

1. This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.

In his first sentence he gets it spot on, but possibly not in the way he thinks and despite his scorn for this it is his first point and he goes to great lengths to try and dismiss it. The reality of the matter is no “militant atheist” I know really thinks all theists are dumb and I would be interested in seeing the published information to support this idea. There are very intelligent and well educated theists – this goes without saying – and equally there are retarded atheists. Here, Humphrys has created a strawman and then attacked it. He tried to demolish it with an appeal to ridicule but, come the crunch, he failed. Nothing in what he writes actually says anything relevant to the point he tries to address so I suspect this is actually proof some atheists are dumb.

The strawman used by Humphrys reads that atheists think theists are “mostly” dumb or not as clever as atheists. Nothing that he writes contradicts this idea, except the appeal to ridicule at the beginning – and if it really is so clearly untrue, why address it first and foremost? If he strongly thinks it is false, then why is he using phrases like “reduced to using a ‘study’” (with sneer quotes)? Strawmen are wonderful things, but they need to be used properly…

2. Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.

Here he continues the strawman and again says nothing. I am not sure what point he is trying to make here. Does he mean to imply that religious belief is “good” because some people need alcohol to get through the day? Is he saying that the Bible (or what ever religious belief) is nothing but a crutch for people with problems and then claiming it doesn’t prove the original (yet strawman) argument he presented? If so, he is sadly mistaken.

After what he must feel was a rapier-like strike with the first point, Mr Humphrys descends into meaningless, pointless sentences like point 2. I am sure, somewhere, it means something but reading it on the Times Blog is baffling. He has no means of dismissing the claimed idea, for example with point 2 he does not even attempt to explain why intelligent theists are not simply clinging to their belief like an alcoholic clings to their bottle, he just says (an intellectually lazy) “so what.” For example:

3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.

Again, he has no point other than a strawman. He has no way of dismissing or even disagreeing with it and finally he trots out the old stalwart of the theist case – Atheists in Foxholes. Now, anyone who has read “God Is Not Great” will know that Christopher Hitchens is indeed someone who has been an atheist under fire, as have I and many, many other people I know. In all honesty, I know more people who have been an atheist in a foxhole than a theist.

But even if we assume the claim is correct, it leaves open the argument that the gods the theists are worshipping are somewhat neglectful. Surely they should be caring for their believers more than unbelievers, so why is it so many of the faithful are made to suffer…?

4. True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.

This leaves me with a massive “eh?” So what? He agrees with the militant atheist claim, so what is his point?

5. This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.

Mr Humphrys is misrepresenting the “militant atheists” claim here so that he can simply add a rebuttal in the form of a twist. Obviously he is thinks it is ok for religions to bully people into observing their practices because, deep down, the person doesn’t believe in them. Madness.

6. Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.

It seems his liberalised anglican upbringing is showing here. Fundamentalist Islam is, indeed, dangerous in the short term violence aspect but the reality is no amount of terrorist attacks can destroy civilised democracy. Yes, people may die but then people die every day. The destruction of civil liberties that is following the fear of Islam provides a more long-term worry. The destruction of education being forced upon the west by Fundamentalist Christianity is more likely to do long-term harm to our societies ability to exist than people with semtex strapped to their chests. (Even “liberal” Holland is suffering – for example). The “harm” caused by religion is not always exemplified by planes flying into towers – think of the oppression of homosexuals, the subjugation of women, caste systems, refusal of medical treatment for minors etc.

Also, I am not sure his history is up to speed either. While Judaism may have been around for 4000 years, it is certainly a lot shorter period of time in which monotheistic death cults have been dominant on a global scale – let alone people who get their orders from the voice in their head god having access to nuclear weapons.

7. Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.

Again, we have the illusion of a middle ground which is more reasoned, more acceptable, than the non-belief of Atheism. This middle ground has been largely created by theists who seek to undermine the idea that atheism can exist. It is not logical to have no opinion on the subject unless you have given it no thought. I am confused by the concept of finding the existence of god implausible but the reality of belief undeniable. Working through what passes for logic is giving me a head ache but I will try:

Mr Humphrys is asserting he is an agnostic because he finds the existence of god implausible but the reality that people “believe” in god is undeniable so he can’t think of himself as an atheist.

Did I get it right?

It has that wonderful ring of being “true” but it isn’t. Just because lots of other people “believe” something with all their hearts does not mean it is true. For centuries people believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, that the solar system was the universe, that stars were ancient warriors, that the gods sat on top of Mount Olympus and interfered with mankind and so on. Not one of these things were true and all the belief in the world will not overturn that.

It strikes me that, although Mr Humphrys describes himself as an “agnostic” and ridicules the idea that children are indoctrinated into religious beliefs, he is suffering from this indoctrination. He (I assume) will certainly agree that lightning is not the result of Zeus’ anger, that Neptune does not control the oceans and Loki is not spreading global mischief. He (again, I assume) will agree that there is a continent across the ocean from Europe, that the Chinese are not devils, that elves do not live in woods, dwarves do not mine gold in the Norse mountains, faeries do not steal Irish children and the tooth fairy is not responsible for the coin under the pillow.

All of these things have at some point been believed to be true by people over the world. All of them. They all have as much evidence for existing as the Christian God. If the existence of belief is proof of existence, then they exist. The existence of the things I mentioned is implausible and unlikely, but this seems not to matter to Mr Humphrys.

I find myself wondering if he really does doubt the existence of god.

On a final note, and getting back to the subject of this diatribe, Mr Humphrys closes with:

As for the fanatics – religious or secular – history suggests they succeed only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be defeated by our own irrational fear. For every fanatic there are countless ordinary, decent people who believe in their own version of a benevolent God and wish no harm to anyone. Many of them regard it as their duty to try to make the world a better place. It is too easy to blame the evils of the world on belief in God. In the end, if we make a mess of things, we shall have ourselves to blame – not religion and not God. After all, he doesn’t exist. Does he?

While I actually agree with the first part of this (and this is why I feel the “fear of Islam” is more worrying than the effects of actual terrorism), he finishes it up by missing the point completely. I know of no atheists who blame god for the world’s troubles. The blame has, at times, been placed on religion which, despite the assertion he closes with, is something he seems to be agreeing with. The people are making a mess of things. They are making a mess of it under the idea that they are working to a higher power and worldly suffering will be followed by a reward in the afterlife. This is the result of religion not secularism.

(I will leave looking at Giles Fraser to others for now but if you have spare time read the comments, they are priceless – even Fr Brian Storey pops up!)

[tags]John Humphrys, Humphrys, Religion, Belief, Christianity, Faith, Delusion, God, Bible, Logic, Fallacy, Strawman, Appeal To Ridicule, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Understanding, Times Online, Logical Fallacy, Confusion, Islam, Monotheism, History, Agnostic, Atheist, Militant Atheist, In God We Doubt, Book[/tags]

Wow, Christians really are weird…

As a result of growing up with an entirely secular background, in (at the time anyway) the very secular United Kingdom, there is a large part of me which refuses to accept that people like the posters on Teens4Christ really exist. This part of me is convinced they are just trolls, or kids who are living out a fantasy life which is a sanitised version of Dungeons and Dragons or the like.

By chance, following a link on FSTDT, I came across a thread which purports to be a poll asking atheists what they would do if they were possessed by demons. Seriously. The choices given were basically exorcism & convert to Christianity, exorcism but don’t convert, no exorcism and become friends with the demon/devil and no exorcism but don’t become friends. The choices, if honestly presented, give a scary insight into the mind of the “teen” who made this post. Bring back D&D, that’s all I can say…

To highlight my point about the sheer off-the-wall nutjobbery, this is what the conversation degenerated to: First a post by Esther:

oh my goodness I just heard on the news that a man was caught choking a three year-old girl and I guess they were doing an exerocism on her. thats so awful! I know demons are real but whenever someone says they see an angel or demon I always think there crazy. angels appeared to people all the time in the olden days in the bible so I shouldnt think that but would you guys believe if you heard someone on the news who said an angel talked to them?

And then Follower (who initiated the thread) replies with:

That’s what’s tough about Demon possessions. You have to make sure the person doesn’t have a mental condition first. Otherwise, Holy water and chanting won’t help.

Mentalists. I can only assume this is a debate between pre-teens in the manner of how secular kids will discuss if Ninjas can fight Batman. (Reassuringly, later on Follower states he is not yet of college age, hopefully some education will eventually rub off on him.)

Sadly, there is one poster, rch10007 apparently adult and mature enough to be an admin there, who seems to demonstrate that there is little chance this “younglings” will change with age. [tags]Logical Fallacy, Logic, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Atheism, Christianity, Belief, God, Anti-Atheist, Exorcism, Demons, D&D, Role Playing Games, Dungeons and Dragons, Fantasy, Ninjas, Madness, Woo, Nonsense, Weird, Possession, Catholic, Hatstand[/tags]

Phone Masts Not Harmful

In today’s Guardian newspaper (and online and here) there is an article explaining how the fears and worries of the “electrosensitive” woo-mongers is unfounded.

Sadly, the Guardian’s “news” editors have chosen to go with the headline:

Research fails to detect short-term harm from mobile phone masts

Now, it may just be my pedantry, but surely that strongly implies there is a short term harm and the researchers simply failed to detect it? The second link above is better and carries the tag line:

Yet another study shows no link between mobile phone radiation and ill health

Which pretty much captures the repetitiveness of this as a research result. The overwhelming weight of science shows there is no evidence of any short term harmful effect from communications masts and the only proven long term risk is from the most popular source of electromagnetic energy itself – the Sun.

In a nutshell, this seems like a well designed study which, like all the others, has resulted in no evidence that people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation actually are – this is even something I have mentioned in the past. Repeated tests have shown that if you get an “electrosenstive” and tell them there is a transmitter near by, they evince the effects they claim are caused by “EM.” If they dont know the transmitter is near by, they don’t have the effects. In my unsympathetic, un-medical opinion this is pretty good proof it is all in their mind – for various reasons they are completely making it up. Part of me concedes the symptoms may be real, but it is only a small part of me. Either way, targeting phone masts as the culprit is doing no one any favours. As the Guardian comment on the topic finishes:

What sufferers experience is real and in many cases very unpleasant. But in the light of this evidence we can be pretty certain that phone masts do not cause short term health problems for the vast majority of people. Electrosensitive support groups should recognise this and begin to look harder for other causes of the condition.

Well said. Stop fighting a bogeyman and find the real cause – if there are real symptoms.

As always, there are those who are so wedded to a concept that no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented, they will refuse to accept it. Sounds a bit religious to me, but never mind. The wonderfully named “Mast Sanity” website is a cited opponent of the recent study, and shows many of the traits you would normally associate with creationists trying to debunk evolution.

Unsurprisingly, Mast Sanity is a screaming example of bad science and a place where spurious arguments are used to dispel the results of the most recent study — I assume similar tactics were used on older studies, I didn’t look into the site that much, what I did read seemed like a check list of logical fallacies and debate-scoring tactics rather than anything reasoned. Some examples include:

We question why psychologrists are doing this research at all since physical changes to the skin and heart rates have been found in other research. Presumably the psychologists ‘believe’ this is all in the mind and this is what they set out to ‘prove’.

Yeah, and when you read the research notes it shows the psychologists set out to measure the physical responses. This smacks of a combination of appeal to ridicule and the laypersons perception that educational disciplines exist in complete isolation of each other. If the researchers had set out to prove the Electrosensitivity was in the mind, this would be obvious from the experimental design, not from what discipline the people who run the experiment come from.

Their conclusion was made possible by eliminating 12 of the most sensitive electrosentive volunteers who had become too ill to continue the study. Even a child can see that by eliminating 12 of the original 56 electrosensitive volunteers – over 20% of the group – that the study integrity has been completely breached.

Wow. First off the 12 people withdrew themselves, they were not eliminated to make the experiment possible. If the other 44 “electrosensitives” were actually electro sensitive, then what would the loss of those 12 change? As for the great “even a child” comment — well really. I have not met many children who can do the statistical analysis required to account for the changed sample sizes, but most would probably make a random assumption as to the status of the experiment. Does that mean they would be correct? Critically, the “study integrity” has certainly not been completely breached, it just gives a larger error bar to the findings.

There is more bad statistics with this bit of meandering nonsense:

One participant in the study questions Professor Fox’s assertion that only four people got all six test correct. He said “I got five [out of six] as during the first three five minute tests on session one, I stated ‘not sure’ after the first five minutes, which was marked as NO, but on session two, three and four I got it 100% right and actually identified the type of signal, so are the Essex [study] numbers meaningful?

I will confess to not really understanding what this is trying to say. One person thinks that more (or less) than four people got all six tests “correct” because he got five out of six in one of them. Blimey. The whole experiment must be flawed then… I would really appreciate it if someone could explain what the above means to me — I must be having a bad understanding day today. Talking about a previous study, quoted by the BBC, Mast Sanity continues:

… We don’t think Dr. Rubin [author of previous study] is qualified to comment on the Essex study as he didn’t even use a shielded room for his own experiments at King’s College and the so called ‘sham’ (zero) exposure was not a zero signal as people have been led to believe.

What makes me laugh about this, is the “pro-sensitives” leap on the shielding issue, and largely it is a cornerstone of their defence against the real science. In a nutshell, it explains why the “sensitives” report effects when no mast is transmitting, but they are led to believe it is. The problem with this is that when the “sensitives” believe the mast is off, they report no symptoms. Is the shielding belief-powered?

With no signs of irony whatsoever, Mast Sanity finishes its tirade with this wonderful bit of woo-spin:

Mast Sanity Spokesperson Yasmin Skelt says “All in all the Media release of this study has been an exercise in spin and propaganda and a poor one for science.

It is the long term health effects where people are forced to live near real Mobile Phone Masts that count and this study in no way covers those.

Great isn’t it? They refer to themselves in the third person and claim the science is spin and their spin is science. New Labour must love the world they have created.

The study was solid science. It certainly was not a perfect experiment, but few ever are. The conclusions drawn are sound and the reasoning is valid. The Woo-Monger reactions have been an exercise in spin and bad-logic, rarely coming close enough to science to be thought of as bad science. The study was very upfront — as have been the media reports — that this didn’t look at long term effects. Sadly, spinning the goal posts to a new location does not invalidate the research — not that the woo crowd have ever worried about that.

Asking if there are long term health effects is a good question, and an area where the research is sketchier which results in less certainty over the answers. That said, the common cries of the “electrosensitives” is that they suffer short term effects (which is why people buy “shielded curtains” and the like) and on this, it is quite probable that they are wrong. Redefining the criteria each time one is falsified is typical of another group who hold to nonsensical beliefs in the face of all evidence. Will Electrosensitivity become the Woo of the Gaps?

[tags]Media, News, EM,Woo, Science, Bad Science, Statistics, Bad Statistics, Electromagnetism, Guardian, Electrosensitivity, Nonsense, Society, Belief, Research, Experiment, Evidence, Logical Fallacy, Spin[/tags]