Saturday, July 31, 2010

public information

Tapping a can of coke twice on the top before you open it doesn’t stop the contents foaming out.

Why do you think it does, idiots?  I mean, come on.  This is particularly stupid, even for you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Taking offense

As so often, there seems to be a strange asymmetry between believers and non-believers in the matter of taking offense.  Well, that should hardly surprise anyone: the religious take offence at pretty much everything.  It’s their default position.  And the thing that offends them the most is people not believing in their particular god.

But that kind of thing isn’t what I mean.  I’m talking about something that regularly offends atheists and other rationalists, which is the epithet ‘New Atheist’.  This term is typically used as a derogatory term for atheists who refuse to be polite and – above all – quiet.  They are the nasty type of atheist who point out their errors of logic and the stupidity of their beliefs.  People like me, in fact, so this is something I feel qualified to be offended by.  And I am, but not by the epithet itself.  I’m offended by it for two reasons.

First, because it is so obviously, self-evidently and trivially wrong.  There’s nothing new about this style of atheism.  People like Bertrand Russell were mocking religion in the 19th Century and plenty of others did so before him.  Atheism hasn’t changed, it’s the response to atheist critics by the religious that changed.  They don’t burn us at the stake any more (although some of them would like to).  They don’t censor our books or imprison us for noticing things about the world or trying to educate people.  Although – again – quite a lot of them would like to.  The charge of novelty is clearly intended to pin vicarious blame on a group of people for an increasingly secular world.  Where’ve we seen that before?  So it’s an artificial term that doesn’t have a meaning anyone can agree on.  This bewilders us, which is what I find offensive.  It’s so pointless and random.  Such a pointless term, invented solely for the purpose of constructing wilfully false arguments against people who happen to disagree.  I’m not insulted by the term itself, but by the sheer laziness and dishonesty it represents.  Can’t they come up with something better?  Moreover, it insults all the supposedly old atheists who were – or would have been if not for all the torturings –just as forthright about their atheism as anyone today. 

Second, precisely because it is so non-offensive.  Only the religious mind could think that being called ‘new’ would be insulting.  Isn’t being a new atheist better than being an old one?  Isn’t it more progressive and forward-thinking?  It’s easy enough to see why many religious people would think that’s an insult, but not a rational person.  Again, this is bewildering.  They sneer when they use the phrase and we just think well…how is this an insult?

I’m all for embracing the New Atheist epithet and claiming it as our own.  It’s what homosexuals did with words like ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ and it drove their opponents crazy.  How do you react when people laugh at and embrace your most dire threats?  As far as I can tell, the only reason we haven’t done this yet is that the whole thing is so slopping and bewildering as an insult.

So I’m a new atheist.  I accept all the charges addressed to new atheists as specific charges against me.  In fact, I insist that people recognise that I’m strident and rude.

Female genital mutilation in Britain

Unbelievable.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/25/female-circumcision-children-british-law?showallcomments=true

This disgusting practice is illegal in Britain.  It’s illegal for it to be done to a British citizen anywhere in the world.  It has been illegal for 7 years.  It happens 500-2000 times a year.

And yet there has never been a single conviction.

There must surely be blind eyes being turned here, presumably in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’.  Don’t these mutilations sometimes go wrong and require intervention by a doctor?  Aren’t any of these girls ever examined by a doctor for unrelated reasons?  And don’t the doctors report it?  If they do, don’t the police pursue it?  Doesn’t the CPS push for prosecution?  What exactly is going on here?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Helping?

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/on-the-incivility-of-atheists-tom-johnson-and-exhibit-a/

I won’t go into the background, since Jerry does an excellent job of summarising it in that link.  He’s also done an excellent job of investigating the perp (I’ll copy Jerry and refer to him as “JT”) and describing the current situation.  I don’t have an issue with any of that, it was well - and I think necessarily - done.

But I’m conflicted about some of the comments.  I won’t reproduce them here, but some people feel that “JT” needs to be “outed” by having his real identity revealed in public.  Some have gone as far as to say that he doesn’t ever deserve to gain employment in a position where anyone has to trust him (although I’d have thought that would include every position).  I wasn’t personally involved with the story as it was happening and wasn’t even aware of TJ’s site until after he closed it down (although I’ve seen cached versions).  So this probably moderates my sense of outrage.  However, there’s a harshness to this that I’m not sure I can agree with.  People – no matter how despicable – deserve the opportunity to redeem themselves.  And yet, it’s difficult to see how redemption could take place if he isn’t outed.  To be redeemed, people must be able to judge your actions, but this isn’t possible if nobody knows who you are.

I suspect some correspondents are confused between TJ being held accountable for what he’s done and being punished for it.  I’m all for his being accountable.  He orchestrated a sustained smear on New Atheists in general and some in particular.  He lied about his identity, used numerous fake identities on various forums and on his own website to feign support for his positions.  And he told damaging lies about New Atheist behaviour.  He apologised only when he was caught and he even lied in at least one of his apologies (specifically, he said that he wasn’t a graduate student). 

He should be held accountable for this, somehow.  But I don’t think it’s my job to punish him.  Even if I knew who he was, I wouldn’t out him.  Even if I were one of the people he targeted in person, I probably still wouldn’t be interested in outing him.  I can’t even say with any certainty that I want him to be outed.

Jerry reports that TJ’s PhD advisor is aware of the situation and that his university is investigating whether action will be taken against him.  Ophelia Benson thinks this handles the accountability part and I’m tempted to agree.  Being threatened with expulsion from his PhD programme might give him cause for serious thought.  Naturally, there’s a chance that he’ll weasel out of it scott free or that he won’t feel contrite at being caught or scared of potential consequences to come.  This would be frustrating but we’ll probably never know either way anyway.

I tend to feel that redemption is more important than punishment…or even justice in some cases.

So after knocking all these ideas about, have I come to any conclusion?  Well, the ideal would be for TJ to come clean in public, regardless of the results of the ongoing investigation by his university.  He’d no doubt take some flak for it, perhaps unfortunately, although surely deservedly.  He might harm his chances of future employment, but I don’t know how much. 

But if he gave a frank and full apology, in public, revealing his identity, then it might go a little way toward restoring his reputation. 

Now, I’m not a fan of people baying for apologies either.  Tiger Woods springs to mind.  He did some reprehensible things and we should….reprehend…..him.  But I can’t for the life of me work out what his personal life has to do with his sport.  And I can’t understand why we should hound him until he apologises… then act as though everything’s OK now. 

So I wouldn’t take an apology at face value, but it would be a start.  If TJ made his identity public then used that identity to start making honest, transparent blog posts, with honest, transparent, public debate, then we might be able to trust him some day.

So that’s my suggestion.  Rather than outing TJ, perhaps we should encourage him to come clean and start building a new reputation based on honesty.  Perhaps we should support an effort like that.  And by “support” I mean calling him out on accomodationist bullshit, investigating dubious claims and possible sock puppets, if we want to.  Or ignoring him.  But I don’t mean shutting him down because of his past idiocies.

If he doesn’t out himself, then he remains just another dishonest arsehole on the web and we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over that.

So to summarise: he seems to be in some trouble with his university.  There’s a chance that he’ll understand the consequences of what he did and how it might affect his future.  There’s a chance that it will actually (adversely) affect his future.  And there’s a chance that he’ll face no consequences or remorse at all.  So be it.  I’ll judge, but won’t execute.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Crockoducks… and inevitably bananas

Kirk Cameron and his loathsome sidekick Ray Comfort famously attacked evolution by proposing one of these:

Crocoduck 

A crockoduck.  That’s right, a half crocodile half duck chimera.  There’s nothing like it in the fossil record so Cameron and Comfort feel safe to conclude that evolution isn’t true.

This is of course spectacular nonsense.  Evolution doesn’t predict crocoducks and we shouldn’t expect to find one in the fossil record.  To suggest we do is to misunderstand evolution in the most profound way.  Which Cameron and Comfort do, of course.  Ducks are not descended from crocodiles.  Rather, like all modern species, they share a common ancestor and evolution tells us not to expect intermediates between them.  The common ancestor of crocodiles and ducks would have looked nothing like either a crocodile or a duck and certainly nothing like a crocoduck.  Besides, there are quite a lot of things a bit like the crocoduck in the fossil record.  What Comfort and Cameron mean when they talk about crocoducks is that there are no fossils of intermediate species.  This, of course, is not true.  For example, there’s this chap:

archeopteryx_solnhofen3.jpg

Archaeopteryx.  It shows features common to both birds and reptiles.  Kind of like a crocoduck, I’d have thought, but one predicted by the Theory of Evolution.  And of course there are lots more transitional fossils.  In a very important sense, every fossil is transitional.  Comfort and Cameron know this and their claim is a downright, outrageous lie.

But their argument has been debunked on an evolutionary basis by more expert people than I such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I want to talk about another bit of weirdness that shows the extent Comfort and Cameron’s blinkered dishonesty.

Evolution doesn’t predict chimera in the fossil record, but the bible does! For example, it discusses the cockatrice:

1121_cockatrice

which as you can see is not unlike the crocoduck (Isaiah 11 8, Isaiah 14 29, Isaiah 59 5, Jeremiah 8 17). 

Shouldn’t we expect to find cockatrices in the fossil record?  Perhaps that’s what Comfort and Cameron think Archaeopteryx is. What about Satyrs (Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14, Leviticus 17:7)? Unicorns? Dragons? Behemoths? 

Why don’t Cameron and Comfort explain why we don’t find evidence of these beasts in the fossil record?  It’s a level of dishonesty that goes beyond their simple lies about the lack of transitional fossils.  If their argument holds true for evolution, then it should be true for the Bible as well. 

But it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron and Comfort’s level of stupid.  They are the geniuses, you might remember, who brought us the news that the banana is proof of god because they are so perfect for humans to eat.  When I first saw that video, I thought it was a parody.  It’s not.  That’s how Comfort talks all the time.

I shouldn’t have to debunk the banana argument, but I’ve seen people taking it seriously, so here goes.  First, the argument is specious from the outset.  Apparent utility is not evidence of a designer.  And why is the banana so special?  What about the food that isn’t naturally good to eat?  We don’t digest meat well unless it’s cooked and thanks to things like salmonella, it’s not safe to do so anyway.  Many vegetables, such as potatoes, are not good for humans to eat in their natural state.  They are not curved toward us to make eating them easier (I can’t believe comfort makes that argument in all seriousness).  Why should bananas be singled out? Shouldn’t we see similarly amazing convenience in everything else, too?  If bananas really were perfect for humans, they’d probably grow nearer the ground and would be unpalatable to non-humans.  They’d be non-perishable and they’d grow everywhere.

Hilariously, of course, bananas do have a designer.  They are artificially selected into their current form by humans and cultivated asexually.  Wild bananas look like this:

wild banana

They are not good to eat.  They have numerous large, hard seeds. They aren’t the right shape.  They’re not easy to peel.  There’s no ring pull.  Interestingly, the ring pull method is not the best way to open a banana.  It’s not how monkeys open bananas.  They do it from the other end, like this.  Try it, it’s much, much easier than the way we were all taught.

Comfort and Cameron’s stupidity is deliberate.  They don’t want to hear counter-arguments and Comfort in particular will shout them down without addressing them.  They repeat lies even after those lies have been exposed.  And yet Comfort sells a lot of books.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More on Sharia Law

Remember this?  It’s what I was referring to in my last post when I talked about partial adoption of Sharia Law in places like Britain.

The Archbishop of Canterbury says the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable".

Only a religious mind could think this.  My favourite way of avoiding the adoption of Sharia law is to not adopt it.  It seems to me that this would be a fairly effective weapon in the battle to not adopt Sharia law. 

He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

But….yes they should.  Precisely because we are a multi-cultural society.  State trumps culture because disputes can cross cultures, the borders of what’s considered ‘a culture’ are at best unclear and because in many cases (as exemplified by Sharia law) people don’t get to choose whether they want to be part of that culture or not. 

Williams is a dishonest, disingenuous dick.  What he really wants to say is that Christians (particularly Christian clergy) should get special treatment, but he’s too flat out scared to say that because it (rightly) sounds so horrific.  So he instead plays up the importance of religion for its own sake, rather than just the trappings of his own religion.  It makes him feel wise and magnanimous.  It makes him feel open-minded and saintly.  But he’s advocating that lots of women be subjected to misery and violence.  He’s advocating restrictions on Muslim women that are beastly

And his reason for doing so is this: he wants to keep on feeling important for as long as he can. 

The only reason he’s not as evidently evil as the pope is that Anglicism is Catholicism Lite.  

Banning the Burqa

This is quite a hard one to call.  The burqa is an instrument of oppression.  However, it’s pretty oppressive to tell people they can’t wear one.  So what to do?  Well, one important thing is that people who wear burqas shouldn’t get special rights that nobody else does.  If nobody is allowed to cover their face in public, it should include Muslim women.  I’m a little uncomfortable at the idea of bringing in laws to prevent people covering their faces, though, because nobody else really wants to cover their face, other than the occasional motorcycle courier or bank robber. 

The main objection to a ban is that it would interfere with the wearers’ rights and this is what the objectors pounce on.  What they seem to forget is that enormous numbers of Mulsim women are allowed virtually no rights at all.  They have to be chaperoned everywhere.  They can’t drive, become educated or work.  They can’t talk to men who are not close relatives.  They don’t get to choose not to be pregnant.  They aren’t allowed to go out without their face covered. 

And yet the one right the anti-banners seem to be worried about is the right for women to cover their faces.  Something seems very wrong with this.

As against, in general, as I am of banning things, if I had to vote for or against a ban on the burqa, I’d have to come down in favour.  Of banning it, that is. But it wouldn’t be for dubious reasons of anti-terrorism or public safety, it would be to help end an instrument of oppression.

But I’d much rather go in a different direction to a somewhat arbitrary ban.  I’d resist any partial adoption of Sharia Law for Muslims in countries that don’t already have it, and campaign to abolish it in countries that do.  I’d support efforts to encourage Muslim women to report abuses of their rights and to protect them when they need it.  I’d support drives to educate Muslim women and to help them achieve the means to support themselves.  I’d support initiatives to educate Muslim men into new ways of thinking and behaving.  I’d do what I could to demolish the macho components of Muslim society that lock female enslavement into culture. 

If Muslim women aren’t allowed to cover their faces, it’s going to piss a lot of people off.  I’m not against pissing people off, but I’m not sure what it’s likely to achieve. 

Is it just going to mean that lots of Muslim women won’t be allowed to go out at all?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why we are awesome

Skepticism and critical thought is important.  It saves people money, protects them from making bad decisions, stops them wallowing in wishful thinking and it saves lives.

I have another - less happy - anecdote on a similar topic.  I know a couple who have a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, a distressing condition on the autism spectrum.  At times, the child’s behaviour has been troublesome, which has been difficult for everyone: the child himself, his parents, his teachers, his siblings…

In some desperation, his parents tried remedies that were not skeptically informed.  They tried magic fish oil, enthusing in raptures over its supposed effects and claiming improvements in behaviour which, if they were there, nobody else could see.  They tried cranial osteopathy, which is stone-cold bullshit (I seem to be mixing metaphors a lot lately). 

These are for the most part, rational, intelligent, web-savvy people.  Rather than look up information about cranial osteopathy, they believed what the osteopath said.  They were very impressed indeed with her, and were again highly enthusiastic.  They seemed to look on her unquestioningly as an authority because she said what they wanted to hear: they wanted a silver bullet.  Before the kid’s asperger’s was diagnosed, they’d noticed he was slow to start talking and had quite a bit of difficulty while learning.  They arranged some speech therapy for him….but didn’t keep it up because the visits were inconvenient.  I’m not meaning to sound harsh here – I’m not judging them – it’s just the kind of thing that points to their wanting a silver bullet.  Rather than working hard, it looks from outside as though they wanted the problem to go away.  There were other examples.  They kept saying that things would get better when he went to school… then when he got a teaching aid… then when he got to the next school… then when he was formally diagnosed….

There’s a excellent happy ending part and a more unfortunate part. 

The good is that the kid’s parents got him a scholarship at a school that specialises in disorders of his type.  He loves the school, he fits in well, has friends, and is having none of the quite severe behavioural problems that characterised his early life.

The bad part is that there’s no evidence the parents learned anything.  When they started with the fish oil, I explained that the evidence wasn’t really there (this was back when omega 3 was relatively new on the scene, so it was hard to point to debunkings).  They listened politely, but resolved to try it anyway.  Fair enough, no immediate harm done (although wishful thinking can itself be harmful).  When they went to the cranial osteopath, I was more forceful about the fact that it wouldn’t work.  I don’t think I was a dick about it.  I was trying to help and did so by pointing to resources that were sympathetic but honest.  They didn’t react well.  They shut off the lines of communication on that subject.  They didn’t want to hear it.  They only wanted to hear positive things, as though trying something was the same as doing good.

The school seems to be working.  It works because the staff are experienced and know what they are doing.  They’ve observed the behaviour of children with such conditions, they’ve theorised about how to treat them for maximum benefit and they’ve tested it out.  They’ve presumably measured the results (formally or informally) and modified them until they work best.  Hopefully they are still modifying their approach on a daily basis. 

The lesson the parents could have taken home from what happened is that there are good and bad reasons for believing something works.  Wishful thinking is a bad reason.  Track record is a good one. Their track record of believing in things with a bad track record is bad.  Or good. I’ve confused myself.  Instead, they feel vindicated.  They tried a bunch of stuff and eventually one worked.  This is not a vindication of their strategy, it’s serendipity.  If they hadn’t been looking for a silver bullet and they’d put more effort into researching potential treatments, they might have arrived at a good one sooner and the kid might have avoided a lot of anguish.

I know I’m being harsh. I’m not judging the parents and I’m not claiming I’d have done better.  I understand the impulse to try things that are not supported by evidence when nothing so far has seemed to help.  But there’s no excuse for not recognising and learning from one’s mistakes. 

Welcome to the world

Sunday, July 18, 2010

CRACK’D indeed

Damnit, it turns out nobody is wrong on the Internet today so I’m going to complain about this perfectly reasonable non-idiotic comment.

There’s this thing we call begging the question.

Sort it out, Wong.

Equal rights for women is as bad as child abuse

According to the Catholic church:

The Vatican today made the "attempted ordination" of women one of the gravest crimes under church law, putting it in the same category as clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy and schism.

Incredible. It trivialises child rape and for an encore maximises the insult to women.  How do they manage to be so clueless?  Clueless – most importantly – about what really matters, but also clueless about PR. 

Or are they clueless?  Perhaps the Vatican’s strategy is to strengthen their position with the True Believers(TM) by feeding their fear of change and by stirring up a conflict with everyone else.  Christians love the idea of being persecuted and nothing promotes unity like adversity.

It’s all too easy to believe either theory.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You are what you tweet

If you weren’t aware of Gillian McKeith before yesterday, there’s a very good chance you will soon.  She’s a nutritionist who hosted a programme called You Are What You Eat for Channel 4 and Dr Gillian McKeith's Feel Fab Forever for Granada.  She’s also written various books on nutrition and is the face of several products of dubious effectiveness, including, famously, Horny Goat Weed

Her TV show You Are What You Eat was by all accounts horrific.  McKeith uses shock tactics and bullying to goad fat people into crying on camera, seemingly more for the benefit of her viewing figures than for her victims.  It was also known for her habit of sorting through her victim’s faeces under the pretence that this could somehow aid diagnosis of their weight problems.

McKeith is known for blithering statements.  For example, she’s said that seeds are good to eat because they contain all the energy a plant needs to grow.  That’s right, an acorn contains all the energy to grow an oak tree.  Confusingly, since she doesn’t seem to believe in photosynthesis in plants, she seems to think it works in humans.  She promotes, for example, products that are rich in chlorophyll as that will “oxygenate your blood.”   As Ben Goldacre puts it in the above link:

…chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It’s dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn’t absorb much oxygen in there, because you don’t have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don’t think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination.

Aside from this idiocy, McKeith’s…..how shall I put this?  McKeith’s honesty has been called into question.  The question in particular is “how has she managed to get away with being so dishonest?” and the answer, surprisingly and pleasingly, is that she hasn’t.  Rather, she’s been smacked down on a few things, including the fact that her PhD was purchased from an unaccredited degree mill (and thanks to complaints from the Advertising Standards Authority she is now unable to call herself “Dr.” on her products) and the fact that the MHRA found her guilty of "selling goods without legal authorisation whilst making medicinal claims about their efficacy.”

McKeith’s has never been slow to make false claims to spin these difficulties in a positive light.  For example, she blamed the removal of the aforementioned goods (supposed herbal sex aids) on EU legislation, saying “the EU bureaucrats are clearly concerned that people in the UK are having too much good sex."  The MHRA, on the other hand, stated categorically that the products had never been legal to sell in the UK and that McKeith’s organisation certainly knew this.

I said way up at the top that if you hadn’t previously heard of McKeith, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about her soon.  This is because she appears to have committed another act of blitheringness.

This has been covered elsewhere, so I’ll just link you to the hilariousness…

http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/07/integrity-and-honesty-of-gillianmckeith.html

http://www.zenbuffy.com/2010/07/gillian-mckeith-has-no-phd/

…and then just ram some points home.

McKeith, or whoever was operating her Twitter account at the time, showed up to savage some random tweeter who mentioned her (fake) PhD.  She accused that woman of being ‘anti-American’, insinuating that the reason she had a problem with it was because it was from the US, rather than because it was bought from a degree mill.  Then she accused Ben Goldacre’s book of being “lies”.  Then she pretended that the Twitter feed was not Gillian McKeith’s official feed, despite the fact that it was linked to from her official website and her Youtube channel.  Then, when this was pointed out to her, she had the link (inexpertly) removed from her website.

Goldacre has asked for a simple apology from McKeith, on Twitter, stating that his book does not contain lies.  Otherwise, there’s an implied threat that he might pursue legal action.

Whichever option McKeith takes, it seems likely to be hilarious and I can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Popemobile explained

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1557#comic

That damnable octopus

It’s impossible for you not to have heard of Paul the psychic octopus who has correctly predicted the winners of all world cup games involving Germany, the world cup final and 4 out of 6 Euro 2008 Germany games.

I won’t talk too much about the fact that the odds of this occurring at random are a lot less impressive than they might seem.  I won’t talk too much about the potential for bias (cheating, the Clever Hans effect, Paul’s possible attraction to certain flags, the fact that he almost always chose the right hand box).  I’ll gloss over the prosecutor’s fallacy and total lack of proper experimental design (it didn’t even account for draws, for goodness’ sake).  I’ll even grit my teeth and not complain too much about the fact that even if Paul’s abilities were genuinely paranormal, he wouldn’t be psychic.  He’d be precognitive.

I’m not even all that irritated by the few people who placed bets based on Paul’s ‘predictions’; it’s no particular surprise that people are idiots.

What bothers me is the silliness of the media’s coverage.  It’s all a bit of fun, of course, and there’s no particular harm in it.  I’d have been happy enough to see it mentioned as a tidbit at the end of the proper news to cheer people up a bit.  It could have been reported as what it was - a publicity stunt by the aquarium – and we could have all moved on.  It would have been cute and fun.

What we got was rather different.  I didn’t see a single world cup story on the web or on TV that didn’t mention Paul.  On the BBC, quite a lot of stories that had nothing to do with the world cup mentioned Paul.  Practically every weather forecast included a quip about Paul probably doing a better job.  This sustained banality, with nothing new to say and faux credulity is not a responsible attitude for a trusted source of public information.  Indulging in a little bit of nonsense now and again is fine, but when it’s sustained, I think it becomes harmful.  It’s a bit like horoscopes in newspapers.  It’s often argued that these are harmless and nobody really believes them.  This is demonstrably untrue on both counts: I personally know several people who believe newspaper horoscopes and some of them have been led by newspaper horoscopes to spend quite large sums of money on astrology and to turn down opportunities because of the results. 

Does the casual repetition of Paul as an unquestioned psychic – even though we all know that nobody really believes it – encourage people to waste money and opportunities on psychics?  Well I don’t know, but I think it probably does.  I think it probably blinds people to the idea of critical thinking and damages people’s intuitive grasp of statistics.  These are both hallmarks of woo thinking.

If the BBC and other news sources want to keep mentioning Paul, I think they have a responsibility to explain very clearly that there are no such things as psychic octopuses.  They could do a segment on the Breakfast programme, for example, which investigated how to calculate the odds and comparing them with commonly understood odds.  It could feature a mathematician explaining this and a biologist talking about how amazing octopuses are.  People would learn something.  People might get interested in maths or in biology or just in octopuses.  Isn’t this the BBC’s primary mission?  But we don’t have any of this.  Some of the stories on the BBC website talk about the odds.  In most cases, they’ve calculated them wrongly or misunderstood the results.  In no case I’ve seen have they compared the odds to anything useful to give people a sense of how likely it is that Paul is choosing entirely by chance.  In no case I’ve seen do they examine the story critically, suggesting methods by which bias could be introduced or cheating occur.  In fact, they seem almost to go out of their way to avoid this.  Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

I’m probably being too harsh.  Everyone will have forgotten about Paul soon enough.  But I’m disgruntled by the laziness of missing an opportunity to educate, entertain and amaze in favour of banal repetition of idiocy.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Credulity

Credulity turns up in weird places.  It’s sometimes a form of laziness.  Look at this, for example.  It’s a perfectly ordinary story about a crime right up until the end, when it suddenly and bizarrely says this:

Regular eBay user Rezza Faizee, 27 and from Workington in Cumbria, reckons it's a massive problem and something that has happened to him when he was trying to buy a mobile phone.

"It's definitely something that happens regularly," he admitted.

"I've had friends, family, and the same thing's happened to them.

"I honestly don't know what you can do to tackle the problem, I honestly don't."

Fairzee isn’t anything to do with the story or its protagonists.  He’s just some completely random bloke making what seem to be fairly uninformed comments presumably without evidence.  How can he possibly know that shil bidding “happens regularly”?  Why does the BBC quote him?  It doesn’t add any information to the story, it’s just a random opinion.  We get enough uninformed opinionated nonsense from BBC journalists as it is without some random idiot chiming in.  At least he’s honest about not knowing how to solve the problem.

Is this what the BBC call journalism?  Oh, I asked my mate and he said…?  It’s astonishingly lazy and stupid.

There’s a stealth credulity in here as well, though.  Do you imagine this is only a problem with web-based auctions?  The BBC seems to think so.