Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Excerpt from Steven Pinker

Every era has its dangerous ideas. For millennia, the monotheistic religions have persecuted countless heresies, together with nuisances from science such as geocentrism, biblical archeology, and the theory of evolution. We can be thankful that the punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to the canceling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews. But intellectual intimidation, whether by sword or by pen, inevitably shapes the ideas that are taken seriously in a given era, and the rear-view mirror of history presents us with a warning.

Time and again, people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous. The fear that the structure of our solar system has grave moral consequences is a venerable example, and the foisting of "intelligent design" on biology students is a contemporary one. These travesties should lead us to ask whether the contemporary intellectual mainstream might be entertaining similar moral delusions. Are we enraged by our own infidels and heretics whom history may some day vindicate?

Dangerous ideas are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and we are ill equipped to deal with them. When done right, science (together with other truth-seeking institutions, such as history and journalism) characterizes the world as it is, without regard to whose feelings get hurt. Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution and the environment sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us. Moreover, the rise of globalization and the Internet are allowing heretics to find one another and work around the barriers of traditional media and academic journals. I also suspect that a change in generational sensibilities will hasten the process. The term "political correctness" captures the 1960s conception of moral rectitude that we baby boomers brought with us as we took over academia, journalism and government. In my experience, today's students -- black and white, male and female -- are bewildered by the idea, common among their parents, that certain scientific opinions are immoral or certain questions too hot to handle.

What makes an idea "dangerous"? One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea could lead to an outcome recognized as harmful. In religious societies, the fear is that if people ever stopped believing in the literal truth of the Bible they would also stop believing in the authority of its moral commandments. That is, if today people dismiss the part about God creating the Earth in six days, tomorrow they'll dismiss the part about "Thou shalt not kill." In progressive circles, the fear is that if people ever were to acknowledge any differences between races, sexes or individuals, they would feel justified in discrimination or oppression. Other dangerous ideas set off fears that people will neglect or abuse their children, become indifferent to the environment, devalue human life, accept violence and prematurely resign themselves to social problems that could be solved with sufficient commitment and optimism.

All these outcomes, needless to say, would be deplorable. But none of them actually follows from the supposedly dangerous idea. Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don't have the power to shape their children's personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one's children. And if currently popular ideas about how to improve the environment are shown to be ineffective, it only highlights the need to know what would be effective....

Should we treat some ideas as dangerous? Let's exclude outright lies, deceptive propaganda, incendiary conspiracy theories from malevolent crackpots and technological recipes for wanton destruction. Consider only ideas about the truth of empirical claims or the effectiveness of policies that, if they turned out to be true, would require a significant rethinking of our moral sensibilities. And consider ideas that, if they turn out to be false, could lead to harm if people believed them to be true. In either case, we don't know whether they are true or false a priori, so only by examining and debating them can we find out. Finally, let's assume that we're not talking about burning people at the stake or cutting out their tongues but about discouraging their research and giving their ideas as little publicity as possible. There is a good case for exploring all ideas relevant to our current concerns, no matter where they lead. The idea that ideas should be discouraged a priori is inherently self-refuting. Indeed, it is the ultimate arrogance, as it assumes that one can be so certain about the goodness and truth of one's own ideas that one is entitled to discourage other people's opinions from even being examined.

Also, it's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. Only children and madmen engage in "magical thinking," the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them away. Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action based on false premises will not have the effects they desire. Worse, logicians tell us that a system of ideas containing a contradiction can be used to deduce any statement whatsoever, no matter how absurd. Since ideas are connected to other ideas, sometimes in circuitous and unpredictable ways, choosing to believe something that may not be true, or even maintaining walls of ignorance around some topic, can corrupt all of intellectual life, proliferating error far and wide. In our everyday lives, would we want to be lied to, or kept in the dark by paternalistic "protectors," when it comes to our health or finances or even the weather? In public life, imagine someone saying that we should not do research into global warming or energy shortages because if it found that they were serious the consequences for the economy would be extremely unpleasant. Today's leaders who tacitly take this position are rightly condemned by intellectually responsible people. But why should other unpleasant ideas be treated differently?

There is another argument against treating ideas as dangerous. Many of our moral and political policies are designed to preempt what we know to be the worst features of human nature. The checks and balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to arrogate power to themselves. Likewise, our sensitivity to racism comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in ugly ways. History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence. A recognition that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it.....

Though I am more sympathetic to the argument that important ideas be aired than to the argument that they should sometimes be suppressed, I think it is a debate we need to have. Whether we like it or not, science has a habit of turning up discomfiting thoughts, and the Internet has a habit of blowing their cover.

Tragically, there are few signs that the debates will happen in the place where we might most expect it: academia. Though academics owe the extraordinary perquisite of tenure to the ideal of encouraging free inquiry and the evaluation of unpopular ideas, all too often academics are the first to try to quash them. The most famous recent example is the outburst of fury and disinformation that resulted when Harvard president Lawrence Summers gave a measured analysis of the multiple causes of women's underrepresentation in science and math departments in elite universities and tentatively broached the possibility that discrimination and hidden barriers were not the only cause.

But intolerance of unpopular ideas among academics is an old story. Books like Morton Hunt's The New Know-Nothings and Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate's The Shadow University have depressingly shown that universities cannot be counted on to defend the rights of their own heretics and that it's often the court system or the press that has to drag them into policies of tolerance. In government, the intolerance is even more frightening, because the ideas considered there are not just matters of intellectual sport but have immediate and sweeping consequences. Chris Mooney, in The Republican War on Science, joins Hunt in showing how corrupt and demagogic legislators are increasingly stifling research findings they find inconvenient to their interests.

Totalitarian Measurement

Maybe I'm an old codger but I still cannnot take to metric after over 30 years of it being compulsory in Australia. I have to convert everything into feet and inches to make sure I know what I am talking about. It's a disaster if you misplace a decimal in the metric system but that does not arise in the Imperial system. Post below by Kim du Toit

Over the years, my hostility towards the metric system has been questioned-most notably, it seems, by engineers-and it's probably time I spoke about the topic more fully. Take a look at this article:

The size 14 dress could be consigned to history if a European Union quango gets its way. Traditional British clothes sizing, which ranks women from size 4 to size 32, should be replaced by a more flexible approach in which dresses and blouses are labelled according to their actual measurements, it argues. That would mean trousers would be sold by their waist measurement, and dresses by their bust and hip measurements.
On the face of it, that seems quite reasonable. Certainly, it would do away with the fog of confusion which currently bedevils women's clothing sizes-where the size 10 of yesteryear has become the size 8 of today, and in so doing, forces women to try on clothing, regardless of labeled size, to make sure that it actually fits. But here's where this Euro-initiative gets rather murky:

The proposals, which are voluntary, are being drawn up by the European Committee for Standardisation and are part of a wider plan to force countries across Europe to adopt standard metric methods of labelling products.
As The Englishman pointedly notes: "Isn't it strange how the words `European Committee' [and] `voluntary proposals' always seem to slip into `force' and `metric'." Indeed, it's the coercive nature of metric supporters which raises my ire, as much as the measurement system's rather obvious shortcomings-more of which later on.

I am constantly astounded by the fact that metric supporters feel obliged to make use of their system compulsory, and exclusive. It's all very well to argue that base 10 is more logical a system of measurement (well, except when you want to divide, say, by three or six), but that's not really the point because all measurement systems struggle with anomalies like that. What really gets my goat about the metric system is that someone decided that the basic unit of measurement is x, and at that point, all others rest on that premise and must comply. For those who aren't familiar with the metric system, a meter (actually, metre) is defined thus:

From 1889 to 1960, the metre was defined to be the distance between two scratches in a platinum-iridium bar kept in the vault beside the Standard Kilogram at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris.

This replaced an earlier definition as 10^-7 times the distance between the North Pole and the Equator along a meridian through Paris; unfortunately, this had been based on an inexact value of the circumference of the Earth.

From 1960 to 1984 it was defined to be 1650763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red line of krypton-86 propagating in a vacuum.

It is now defined as the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the metre's length (and therefore the length of all its children: centimetre, millimetre etc) had to be changed three times-which means that a tool made in 1938 will not fit a part made in 1986. Most important of all, however, is the fact that the measurement has been defined in terms with which the average human being has no relationship, and no familiarity either.

Such is not the case with the old-fashioned Imperial system, which from the start was based upon a definition likewise arbitrary (according to legend, the length of King Edward I's foot, and the length of his stride), but which had at least a marginal basis in the everyday, and which could therefore be imagined. Put your foot on the ground, and the distance from heel to toe is more or less a foot. (Edward I, aka. "Longshanks" because of his towering height, had very long feet-longer than the average person's foot, even today.)

The "more or less" distinction is critical, because outside the engineering discipline, the average person has little need for hyper-accuracy. "Add a pinch of salt" works extraordinarily well for cooks, but not for engineers. Precision is needed to build bridges (not as much as you'd think, incidentally-ask the Romans, many of whose bridges still stand today), but precision isn't necessary to gauge whether a couch will fit in a room. Just step heel-to-toe along a line, and you'll get a good idea. In the absense of a ruler or other measuring device, it makes perfect sense to use body parts to gauge distance, because we all have body parts, hence the expression "rule of thumb" (another legendary measurement concept, meaning one which will serve the purpose most of the time, with an acceptable degree of accuracy). The fact that Imperial measurement's origins are often legendary also drives the Precision Junkies wild. From Webster's 1913 Dictionary, the inch is defined thus:

A measure of length, the twelfth part of a foot, commonly subdivided into halves, quarters, eights, sixteenths, etc., as among mechanics. It was also formerly divided into twelve parts, called lines, and originally into three parts, called barleycorns, its length supposed to have been determined from three grains of barley placed end to end lengthwise.
In days of yore, everyone know how long a barleycorn was, because we were an agrarian society. To put this into gunnies' parlance, the old Russian method of using arshins to graduate a rifle's sights makes perfect sense, in that an arshin is roughly the length of a human step (ditto the Austrian schritt, which is the same definition, albeit of a different length). Converting the sights to metres can be problematic because a metre, which is not an intuitive measurement, makes little sense to the average human being until you say that a metre is slightly (3.37") longer than a yard, which everyone can gauge without a mechanical measurement device.

Of course, because we humans prefer order to chaos, we'd like to think that therefore the metric system, which is at least consistent (except for that three-time change of the metre's length thing), would be preferable. But that preference for order over chaos is also dictated by the counterbalancing preference for freedom over order-in other words, order is fine, right up until freedom, in fact or in perception, is severely circumscribed.

And this, in reality, is why the metric system is embraced in Europe-where the people are more comfortable with social order, even at the expense of personal freedom-whereas in untidy, freedom-loving America, the old Imperial system is still king. Indeed, the efforts of ur-European sympathizers, bureaucrats and government to implement the metric system in the United States, have met with resounding, and consistent failure except in the sciences and engineering disciplines (because scientists and engineers always have measuring tools near at hand, and are used to working in abstract concepts anyway). Also note that the loudest proponents of the metric system (outside the science- and engineering fields) tend to be people who tend to favor statism. Let me illustrate the point with something from one of my previous lives.

When I worked for a Great Big Research Company in South Africa, we measured and reported on the flow of consumer goods through supermarkets. Auditors visited the stores every so often, took stock, and reported apparent sales back to head office.

Those stocks and sales were reported in units, eg. Coke 6-packs, Kleenex 12-pack toilet tissue, Colgate Shampoo 250ml, and so on. My job was to convert those units into measures defined by our clients: gallons, cases, client-defined measures (eg. something called "equivalent consumption units"-the amount of soup it took to feed one meal to a family of four), "shift quantities" (the amount of product produced by a single factory shift), and so on. Almost every single product category had a "family" of conversion factors, all applied to the same input data, and all fed out to the clients in the measurement units they specified. Some clients even had the data reported to them in several versions: Marketing might want to see actual consumer purchase decisions, Sales might want to see cases, Production might want to see gallons or litres, etc.

It would have been far more efficient simply for us to use one measurement system-efficient for us, that is-and we could simply have mandated that all clients accept the data as reported, and forced them to perform their own conversion factors in-house. But we didn't, because that's not how capitalism works. Yes, sometimes capitalism is inefficient-but it's inefficient because of the choice which savvy marketers offer to their customers.

And, if I may explain the concept simply (for the benefit of those who are from Santa Monica or France and can't understand how it applies to us): when it comes to a governed society, We The People are the customers, and government is the supplier of services. To put it even more bluntly, government exists to serve us-we do not exist to make government's life easier-and that goes for everything, including weights and measures.

Sure, in closed systems it makes sense to use a single method of measurement: the Armed Forces are metric (for reasons which escape me, unless it was a concession to NATO), and engineer-saturated institutions like NASA ditto (although I note with glee that in their Press releases, NASA uses Imperial units to describe distances-"x thousand miles", rather than "-kilomoters", even though internally, they use metric units). But when it comes to the public, we have made it plain, in no uncertain terms, that We The People prefer user-friendly measurements over abstract ones.

What's interesting is that in our free society, the metric and Imperial systems manage to coexist. On Coke cans, for example, the volumetric contents are generally given in both constructs-355ml and 12 fluid oz-and everyone seems to be fine with that. Yes, it's a little inefficient: why do something twice instead of just once?

Well, that's the whole point. Freedom itself is an untidy, sometimes inefficient system. But freedom (and its sidekick, choice) is the way we've decided to exist in this country. More to the point is the fact that we have made the declarative statement that government and bureaucracy exist for our benefit-not the other way round. So if government and the bureaucracy has to deal with two different ways of measuring the same thing, that's just too bad.

We The People might not know how to define 237cc of liquid-but we damn sure know how much a cup holds, because we drink our coffee out of one every single day of our lives. Put simply, therefore: Imperial measurements are user-friendly, and the metric system isn't. The way I see it, users are more important than bureaucrats and their desire for order, most of the time, and we prefer it that way. Put even more simply: I prefer freedom over precision. So screw the unfriendly metric system, screw the metric coercionists, and screw the totalitarian horse they all rode in on. And now, it's time for my lunchtime 568.25ml (Imperial).


No time to lose our nerve

Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen comments on the Dr Haneef detention

For all the bungling in the prosecution of Mohamed Haneef, one thing is clear. We had better get used to the detention of people with alleged links to terrorism. Our anti-terrorism laws are essential and they are working. The detention of the Indian doctor was right. His links with alleged terror suspects in Britain needed to be thoroughly investigated. That involved a serious, but necessary, incursion on Mr Haneef's civil liberties as the Australian Federal Police undertook the difficult task of checking the equivalent of 30,000 pages of material on his laptop.

We will have to accept further incursions in the future. More people will be detained. Some will be freed without charge. Some will be charged, then acquitted. While the AFP and prosecuting authorities have to lift their game, the mistakes made in Mr Haneef's case are irrelevant to the wider debate about terrorism laws. Nobody thought the laws on murder needed to be changed when Lindy Chamberlain was a charged but ultimately acquitted.

Nor do we want politicians, the police or prosecutors to lose their nerve about taking action for fear of getting it wrong or out of fear of criticism. Mistakes, and criticism of those mistakes will be made and will lead to improvements in practice. Indeed, we may have to accept longer detentions in the future if we are serious about confronting and beating the scourge of terrorism. That is the lesson from Britain where there have been 15 attempted terrorist attacks since 11 September 2001. As reported in The Guardian last week, six suspects have been detained for 28 days under UK laws. Two were charged in connection with the alleged plot to blow up planes across the Atlantic. Another was charged with attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The other three were released without charge.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is considering the need to strengthen British terrorism laws by increasing detention to 58 days so that authorities have sufficient time to sift through evidence. That will lead to more hysteria from civil libertarians that democracy is doomed, that we have allowed terrorists to destroy our system of justice. But when jihadists are willing to blow up trains and buses and planes filled with scores of innocent people, such claims ring hollow. Protecting our right to catch a bus or a train or a plane without being blown up means impinging on the rights of those suspected of having links with terrorism. Some of those suspects will be innocent. But isn't it better that we detain them and investigate the evidence instead of sifting through the twisted metal of blown up trains and human remains after a terrorist attack if they turn out to be guilty?


Church says Australians are a mad lot -- so crazies should be trusted (??)

I rather suspect that the trendy Methodists who claim that are not too hot themselves. See the rubric below

Mental illness touches the lives of almost every Australian, according to a report that reveals the condition affects 85 per cent of the population either directly or through the suffering of a friend or relative. The major new report by Christian charity the Wesley Mission also suggests more people than previously thought - up to 36 per cent of the community - may also have direct experience of a mental health problem. Previous estimates had put the figure at 20 per cent.

Despite the higher prevalence, significant stigma continues to dog people with more serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. The report released yesterday made 21 recommendations for improving understanding of mental illness and the lot of people experiencing mental problems. "Mental illness remains a taboo subject for many people, although it touches the lives of most Australians," said Wesley Mission superintendent Keith Garner. "Despite much public discussion and the advocacy of high-profile figures sharing their personal experiences ... there is still a clear reluctance in the community to trust individuals with a mental illness in decision-making roles or in roles where reliability is paramount." [That's a BAD thing??]

For the report, the result of a six-month research project, the authors surveyed 600 people in Sydney and Newcastle to find out more about public attitudes to mental illness. They found that only 46 per cent of people questioned would trust work done by someone with schizophrenia. Only 55 per cent would feel comfortable working alongside someone with the condition and only 23 per cent said they would feel comfortable if their child was sharing a flat with a schizophrenic patient. This is despite 77 per cent agreeing patients with schizophrenia would improve if treated. Attitudes towards people with anxiety disorders were far more benign: 81 per cent were happy to work alongside them and 67 per cent had confidence in the work they produced.

The report's recommendations included the introduction of tax and other incentives to encourage employers to take on people with mental problems, better integration of treatment services and more support for carers.

Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Centre in Sydney, who wrote a foreword to the report and attended yesterday's launch, said it was significant that there was continued public fear of people with conditions such as schizophrenia, which reflected the difficulty such patients had in getting adequate treatment.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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