Make your excuses and leave

The UK is daily seeing revelations of levels of institutional corruption that would have raised eyebrows in Amin’s Uganda. News International seem to have gone for full-scale subversion of any British institution they can get their hands on.

There’s an embarrassment of revelation riches. Scandals are spilling out at a rate that reminds you of the way that a convicted criminal might ask for hundreds of offences to be taken into consideration when he knows he’s going to jail anyway.
As a random instance: The Sun targeting Gordon Brown’s family. Including getting access to his disabled child’s medical records. And even having to invite the buggers to the funeral.
Hacking Brown was not even a well kept secret. It should have been the subject of a court case.

An unexpected ruling by a judge six years ago effectively covered up the chance to publicly expose evidence of the illegal targeting of Gordon Brown, which had been unearthed by a startled team of provincial detectives.
Operation Reproof, by Plymouth police, revealed the first of what became many systematic attempts to gain illegal confidential information on the prime minister and his family, but their findings were suppressed.
The Guardian has now been able to document the facts.
Files buried in police archives detail the discovery of an extraordinary nationwide network of private investigators, whom a corrupt local police officer was feeding with information filched from the police national computer (PNC) (from the Guardian)

Unlike Plymouth Police, the Metropolitan Police were allegedly so entangled in NI’s web of corruption and blackmail that they couldn’t do anything except contribute to the cover-ups.

(Even where NI misbehaviour involved a police detective, Detective Chief Superintendent David Cook, a Crimewatch presenter targetted for daring to investigate the murder of a NI-employed private detective, whose partners – also NI-employed private detectives were suspects. )

You can’t really blame them when it seemed that every member of the British establishment was either cowed or complicit (or, more likely, both.)

Thus, it’s been left to people like comedian Steve Coogan and actor Hugh Grant to mount almost the only serious challenges to the evil empire.

I am pleased to see that the BSkyB bid finally looks unlikely to go through unchallenged. The Murdoch machine has almost brought the BBC to its knees in pursuit of its tv ambitions, so – blameless as Sky channels might be, in terms of hacking dead teenager’s phones – I’d like to see it fail.

Also, it’s nice to see that News Corp investors are finally questioning the company, although it seems a mite hypocritical for institutional investors to insist that Murdoch must have known what his papers were doing. Can investors really have been unaware of the nature of the business they were investing in? If so, I suggest sending them 412 scam letters immediately, because they have money to invest and are naive enough to believe anything.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher signed some Faustian deal with Murdoch, British society has been paying the price. Maybe, as Harriet Harman implied in an interview this week, all UK political parties should get together and ask News Corp “Can we have our country back, please?”

Fibre optic cable to god

I hope the god-of-abraham has a decent internet connection. He seems to have dropped “omnipresence” from his skillset and to have been reduced to logging on to catch up with his latest comments, like us mere mortals.

A good post on the Times religion blog reported on the growth of online prayer sites. Like beliefnet.

I was already baffled enough by prayer. The internet version is incomprehensible to another order of magnitude.

There are lots of tragic situations listed, with set prayers to go with them. (I don’t know if the participants are allowed to put them in their own words or to precis them in a hurry.)

Do these get delivered straight to the-god-of-abraham? Or are people supposed to repeat them aloud or read them silently, or what? (I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have inadvertently “prayed” by reading them online).

Apparently, the site has seen a huge surge in online prayer requests since the economy tanked. Is the divine omniscience failing again? Surely the-god-of-abraham already knows about the economy?

If he was going to spare his devotees from getting poorer, surely he’d have already sorted them. Or, at least, raptured them or something. Don’t tell me he’s doing that bastardy thing again of just helping them out if they really crawl first and tell him how much they love him.

The answer is so obvious. He’s got fibre-optic cable and now he spends all day surfing the net rather than listening to individuals’ hearts. If it’s not on a blog – or at least on twitter – he hasn’t heard it.

The Times post quoted Richard Sloan:

“The prayers on these sites are all prayers for petition, as opposed to prayers of praise, or prayers of wonder…”

In other words they are all celestial begging letters.

Beliefnet reckons Jesus or god or both (I’m mildly confused by which one this is) promised to answer these prayers:

Jesus lays down amazing promises about the power of asking things from God. He promises to answer. You can check out Thursday’s post if you’d like to see a few of those commitments. Bottom line: God puts himself on the line to deliver what we pray for!

God “puts himself on the line”!!! By Ogum! God may even step up to the plate to deliver on these prayers. Count me in, there’s loads of things I’d like to ask for.

No wait, there is small print. “conditions.”

One of which is, bizarrely, that “Jesus makes prayer a corporate matter.”

I am in awe at this 21st century god. He doesn’t just have a net connection. He is also a CEO.

Ah, it seems to mean he answers prayers by volume.

Effective requests come to God as petitions with more than one signature attached.

Look, he’s a busy guy, right? He can’t be expected to pay attention to the fall of a single sparrow or anything, in a world with 6 billion human beings. He needs lots of voices clamouring for him to do something before he’ll bother to put himself on the line. (That’s why your single prayer for the regrowth of your amputated limb failed, fool.)

There were previous conditions: “asking” (Well duh, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Surely you didn’t think your god was omniscient enough to know that you wouldn’t welcome that bankruptcy?) and “faith.”

Which has a strangely instrumentalist meaning:

Faith as the Bible defines it is an action based on a conviction that something promised with be delivered, even before any evidence appears that it will be so.

Is this a new consumerist adaptation of Christianity? Guaranteed delivery, even if you don’t actually get the thing you ordered.

The god-of-abraham as a giant e-commerce application?

According to the Times,

Worries about the ethics of these sites are further fuelled by the existence of some which charge for intecessionary prayer, offering a ‘call-centre’ style service.

Bang up to the minute, again, god-of-abraham.

What’s the betting that he’s outsourced the whole god business to some Indian call-centre? There must be enough gods in the Hindu pantheon to service the current global demand for divine intervention.

And the god-of-abraham is sunning himself on the beach at some Red Sea resort with a fast internet connection.

Old Scientology News

This is ‘old news’ in 2 senses. (Sense 1) It’s old news because it’s from the the Times of 6 August 2009. (Sense 2) And it’s also really old news because it’s “formerly secret news” from 3 decades ago. The gist of it is:

L Ron Hubbard was a fraud….. No, really. (It is also rumoured the Pope is Catholic. There may be secret files on this.)

The Times filed a Freedom of Information request to access the National Archive files on Scientology. The Department of Health yielded the information on diplomats’ efforts to find out if Hubbard was really a PhD.

(Quick pause to wonder how confusing the government filing system must have been if this item ended up in the Dept of Health.)

Britain’s secret mission to expose Scientology leader as ‘fraud’
The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was exposed as a fraud 30 years ago by British diplomats who were investigating his qualifications.
The science-fiction writer, who invented a religion now followed by celebrities such as Tom Cruise, awarded himself a PhD from a sham “diploma mill” college that he had acquired, the diplomats found. …..

Bit of a damp squib. Given the relatively enticing headline, I was hoping for something more shocking than L Ron’s postgraduate qualifications being imaginary. I suppose at that point maybe the claim that

“…L. Ron Hubbard was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Sequoia University on February 10, 1953, in recognition of his outstanding work in the fields of Dianetics and Scientology and that the said degree was recorded with the Department of Education of the State of California,” John McMaster stated.

might have passed for academic support for the idea of the sciencey- sounding Dianetics actually being a science. It’s still hard to imagine a world in which any reasonable person would accept that, even if it turned out to be supported by a PHd or a full professorship or an NVQ Level 1 in Customer Service.

Links to the Times Scientology Archive don’t work today, but this Times link did:

Simpsons producers ‘have a cow’ as Bart lends his voice to Scientologists
Bart Simpson used to be an underachiever and proud of it. These days, it seems, he’s an Operating Thetan VII in the Church of Scientology and proud of that, too.
At least, that is what Scientologists were led to believe this week when they received an automated telephone message featuring the voice of Bart inviting them to the Scientology Flag World Tour, an event being held in Hollywood tomorrow.

Blimey, those Scientologists are real celeb-magnets. Even the voice of a cartoon character – whose defining characteristics are mischievousness and stupidity – is grist to their celeb mill.

Although, it turns out that, in the real world, Bart’s voice belongs to a woman who is an Operating Thetan VII “and therefore an individual who can operate independently of her body” (The Times). Hmm, sorry, did I say “in the real world”?

Well, it seems her body can operate independently of her mind anyway, because

Ms Cartwright, who earns an estimated $400,000 (£280,000) per episode, was recently awarded Scientology’s Patron Laureate Award after reportedly donating $10 million to the organisation

As it happens, I have a Nobel prize from Oak University, awarded for my sterling work in Camillanology. I have produced a rigorous science-filled training plan that will allow dedicated students to gain the mystical power to talk out of their bottoms. And I love cartoons.

Don’t pay out another dollar please, Ms Cartwright until you have checked out the secret system that I was taught by hyper-intelligent entities from the planet Zeta,

While the cat’s away

Ben Goldacre seems to be on holiday. (His most recent post on badscience.net was dated 18 July.) The temporary absence of the scourge of pseudo-science may have given the green light to new levels of absurdity.

The Times Science Editor, no less, wrote that

Women are getting more beautiful
FOR the female half of the population, it may bring a satisfied smile. Scientists have found that evolution is driving women to become ever more beautiful, while men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.
The researchers have found beautiful women have more children than their plainer counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female. Those daughters, once adult, also tend to be attractive and so repeat the pattern

Now, being in the female half of the population, I’m not showing a satisfied smile. In fact, he only physical expression that you could detect me making would be the Sign language sign for “bullshit”, which a QI repeat showed last week.

(Arms crossed on your chest, with the fingers of one hand making horns and the fingers of the other hand opening and closing as if to drop a load. How beautifully expressive is that?)

If I knew the Sign Language for “ideological and sexist bullshit”, I’d be putting that here instead. But I bet even Steven Fry doesn’t know that one.

“Beautiful” women have more children? Can anyone pretend for one second that there is an objective standard for beauty? Ideals of beauty vary enormously over time and between cultures. Indeed,you wouldn’t find agreement on a common standard between people living a few miles apart. (Certainly not in the city where I live.)

And “having more children”, nay even, having more female children? WTF. That might have been a sign of evolutionary success in the paleolithic, but would surely have depended much more on the capacity to raise children to adulthood than to breed them even then. In modern societies, having a smaller number of offspring is pretty well directly associated with higher levels of education, health and wealth, at the household level, and with economic development, at the social level.

To follow the “logic” of this argument, uglier women would be more reproductively successful in modern society, then, surely?

Quite apart from anything else – because I’m bored with pointing out blatant absurdities in this report – just look around. Opening your eyes on any public street will soon put paid to any idea that good-looking people reproduce more than homely people.

This is the nub of the science bit:

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts. He used data gathered in America, in which 1,244 women and 997 men were followed through four decades of life. Their attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study, which also collected data on the number of children they had.

Hmm, that sounds sciencey but, just having numbers in doesn’t make it science. (Pause to remember that “up to 16%” more children can include anything from fewer children right up to 16% more. )

I can’t find this study online, although there are plenty of newmedia refernces to it. The only works I can find with the name of Markus Jokela are apparently legit: a study of childhood risk in the the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and a study of IQ, Socioeconomic Status and Early Death: The US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in Psychosomatic Medicine.

I’m pretty tempted to let Dr Jokela off the hook here and suggest that the whole beautiful women reproduce more “study” is an obscure internet jokela. One can but hope.

In any case, Ben Goldacre, please stop sunning yourself, and sort this nonsense out.

Mind-reading

I’d barely started to grasp the concept of click-jacking. (And surf-jacking , modem-jacking, car-jacking, rate-jacking etc.)

Now, we also have to worry about “brain-jacking”, according to the Times.

It sounds like science fiction, but politicians, lawyers and advertisers are falling over themselves to buy into the latest scientific discovery: brainjacking. Soon our secret desires and not so innocent thoughts could become public knowledge. John Naish investigates an uncomfortable trend (sub-heading to the Times article)

The idea that machines can determine our true thoughts and feelings isn’t just silly (although, on present showing, it certainly seem to be that) but dangerous. It has already been used in several Indian cases that involved serious crimes, despite the opposition of scientists:

Although an Indian government panel of scientists says this technique, Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature profiling (BEOS), should be ignored, its use in India is spreading

I was pretty scathing about lie-detection technology a few weeks ago.

This sparked the researcher Aiden Gregg to put up an elegant defence of his work in the comments here. I was feeling a bit guilty for randomly splattering out knee-jerk scepticism, when his careful research itself couldn’t be held to blame for how it might be misused by people who don’t understand probabilities. But he said this:

However, as an asserted lie detector, the VSA may intimidate benefit claimants into bring more truthful in general. Ironically, this would involve telling a lie to deter lying.

I don’t think that ironically is the right word, here. I think that unethically is more appropriate. (And that’s ignoring the tendency of the innocent to feel guilty in the face of any interrogation and intimidated in the face of prying authority. Although, maybe, deterring as many claimants as possible is the true objective.)

The Indian courts might be able to intimidate the gullible-guilty into thinking that their brains have given them away. This will not work on the less-gullible guilty. The process could even work to give them an unearned apparent veracity.

The process is basically a conjurer’s mind-reading trick, with science-y looking props. If I had access to a million-dollars, so that I could offer a Randi-style million dollar challenge, I’d happily bet myself against a mind-reading machine as being just as likely to tell who was lying. I think I’m quite good at it. I wouldn’t claim more than 85% success rate but nor do the machine-minders.

So, not having a million dollars, I am setting up the “Ned Ludd Memorial Mind-reading Machine-breaking Challenge.” I will give £20 to the first person who can best my truth-detection skills with some new-fangled electrodes-in-skull contraption.

Cow juice

Without being at all convinced this story is true, I can’t resist repeating it…. The Times says that Hindu Nationalists are about to launch a soft drink made from cows’ piss.

In 2001, the RSS and its offshoots – which include the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party – began promoting cow urine as a cure for ailments ranging from liver disease to obesity and even cancer.

The claim is that it will be healthy and cheap.

(Hmm. If the health argument is founded on the likelihood that drinking cow’s piss will cure cancer or liver disease, what is there to say? Obesity is a different matter. It might be hard to keep down any food after you’d forced yourself to swallow a cup of cow’s piss, so maybe you’d lose weight through starvation.

Cheap? Quite possibly, but, as you couldn’t pay most people enough to drink it, charging anything at all seems a doomed marketing strategy.)

He insisted, however, that it would be able to compete with the American cola brands, even with their enormous advertising budgets. “We’re going to give them good competition as our drink is good for mankind,” he said. “We may also think of exporting it.”

Many of the comments on the Times article are surprisingly in favour of the idea. (Do I suspect a comment-based marketing impetus?)

And oh joy! 😀 Just when you thought there was at least one area of life that the anti-PC brigade couldn’t spew out their gibberish, one commenter says:

Cow’s urine or anyone’s urine! Never in a thousand years! Yuck!! The world has indeed gone mad. What else will they think about? The politically correct bunch will no doubt embrace it and force it on us. Just wait and see. John Lim, Carlsbad, US

Amazingly, it’s actually easier to get your head round the prospect of drinking cows’ piss than it is to see the tortured logic in that.

Bad science of the day – minority report

There’s a new contender for the Holy Grail object: The Magic Machine that Can Tell Truth from Lies.

On the face of it, this one seems even more useless than the old-style polygraph. It can be beaten by the simple expedient of “answeringquicklywithouthesitation.”.

The Times reported that psychologist Aiden Gregg has developed:

A new lie detector test shows that it takes on average 30% longer to tell a fib than to be honest.

That sounds an impressive test for truth – objective quantifiable, replicable, easy to measure, and so on.

Gregg said he built the test because he suspected that criminals were finding increasing ways to hide their dishonesty. …..
… The psychologist warned that existing lie detectors such as polygraphs – which monitor physiological changes such as blood pressure and body temperature – implicate too many innocent people. (from the Times)

Government funding for security is so reliable in these cash-strapped times for universities. So, in one way, it’s a great idea, from an academic’s perspective.

But I can’t see anything in this report that backs up its claims as a Holy Grail Machine.

The experiments were done in an environment which was not pressured. Completely unlike a real-world instance, subjects would have no reasons to be anxious about telling either lies or truth. However, thinking up experimental “lies” would mean subjects had to take more time than the took to tell non-lies.

If you were an innocent suspect sitting in front of one of these machines, for real, you would be worried about your answers. You might hesitate before saying anything, as you pondered possible implications. On the other hand, if you were guilty but had practised a good story, you could just reel it out. Quickly.

This machine might work for finding out which of a group of scared twelve-year-olds had graffittied the bus stop. (Although, elementary normal investigation skills would surely achieve that more time-effectively and actually produce valid evidence.)

Practised liars are convincing. They can smile and wail and even sob convincingly, witness Karen Matthews’ performances. The time-delay counting machine would never have uncovered what was true or false in what she said. Any innocent mother, in the position that Karen Matthews pretended to be, would not answer normally. She would fail the test, while the sort of person who could lie about such an event to their closest family and friends would probably come across as being truthful.

Flawed as this whole lie-detector machine concept is, you can pretty well guarantee that politicians will NOT welcome it unless they are confident that they can beat it easily.

So, if it does get the government go-ahead after its trials, you can at least be confident that it doesn’t work at all.