Sunday, 16 August 2015

An atheist reflects on death

I’ve mostly tried to keep my personal life out of this blog, because that’s what I use Facebook for. But this post was prompted by the recent, unexpected death of my friend Brent. Brent had cerebral palsy, which in his case limited his movement to his head and one arm, slurred his speech, and also affected his cognition. (I never heard the official diagnosis until his funeral on Wednesday.) We met through a volunteer outfit called FriendLink about eight years ago; since then we’ve had a weekly appointment to visit museums and art galleries and libraries in town to look at art or books together. I think he preferred the art, which allowed us to move around and meet people rather than sit in one place as we would with books. Brent was a sunny, sociable person who would say “Hi” to just about everyone we passed.

But he was also sensitive. He could tell if someone had had a bad day, and it would distress him. He would worry, if I coughed or sneezed, that I was “sick”. He commented on death and dying from time to time. Once I remarked that my cat was at the vet, and this reminded Brent that his dog had not long since gone to the vet and then, as he put it, gone to Heaven. He cried. Sometimes, he had questions I couldn’t answer. This past April there were WWI-related exhibits everywhere, and Brent asked me two or three times “Why do they have wars?” I doubt I’m the only person who’s been stumped by that question. Museum displays are often about people who lived a long time ago, and sometimes it would bother Brent that they were dead. He would say things like “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “Oh no, that’s terrible,” or “How did they die?” – the way one speaks of people who have just recently died, who still have people mourning them.

He was right, of course. Most of us partition off the people of the distant past in our minds. They were people, obviously, but we don’t think of them as people people. Well, when I say “we”, it differs between cultures – the dead seem to be much more present to Māori than they are to Pākehā, if my limited cross-cultural observations can be trusted – but there comes a point when we shrug it off. That was the olden days, what do you expect? But the reality is that every name fading in a dusty genealogical manuscript, every fragmentary human skeleton dug up from under two metres of sand, had someone somewhere who grieved over either their stilled body or their absence. Everybody has somebody to say goodbye to them. (Fortunately the dead cannot suffer from our dehumanizing them, making this probably the most benign instance of that disastrous human habit.)

The last time I saw Brent he was in hospital, but that wasn’t all that unusual given the impact his disability had on his health, so I was not remotely expecting the phone call the following morning telling me he had succumbed to a suspected stroke or heart attack some time between eleven and midnight. This kind of bad news takes a long time to go into your head. For those first few minutes I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling, because Brent’s departure left a gap in my mind that no feeling filled – though it did gradually fill up with grief over the rest of the day. I guess when people say they’re “blindsided” or “dumbfounded” or “numb” in the wake of tragedy, that’s what they’re talking about. And there is some part of my mind that still doesn’t quite believe it, thinking of things to talk about when we meet up as usual on Thursday. After all, that’s what I promised him the last time I saw him.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

A plague o’ both your houses

Years and years ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didn’t work out. This past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a couple of sociology lectures for another note-taker who was away. Most of my classes in the last three years have been in dentistry or other clinical sciences, so I found the sudden familiarity a little jarring, like Temuera Morrison’s New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think we’re all that, don’t we?

Lest you think I’m solely ragging on sociology: last semester, I took one of the two weekly lectures in an economics paper, to which I had much the same reaction, although there it was more comfortable because, as a former humanities student active in politics, I have a long-established habit of looking down my nose at the Commerce Division. And Health Sci too, now I come to think about it – “medicalization” is a favourite tut-tut word in certain academic circles. Well, Commerce deserved it, Health Sci didn’t, and we in Humanities really weren’t holding the high ground we thought we were.

Let me try and explain what it’s like. When I was a kid, one of the many books knocking around our house was a shabby little paperback from about the 1960s entitled “100 puzzles for kids” or something, and I remember it because it actually had 101 puzzles but the last one was a trick one that didn’t have a proper answer. A hotel has fifty rooms, and one day fifty-one people turn up wanting accommodation. The hotelier thinks for a bit. He puts the first guest in the first room, then takes the second guest aside and says “If you could just wait here while we get this sorted out.” Then he puts guest number three in room number two, guest number four in room number three, and so on until guest number fifty-one is placed in room number fifty and the hotel is full.

Now this was one of the first hints I had that my brain doesn’t work quite like other people’s. According to the book, most people are bamboozled – they know there’s a flaw somewhere, but they can turn it over and over in their heads for hours before they suddenly go “Of course! The second person hasn’t got a room!” But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadn’t got a room that I turned it over and over in my head for hours wondering what the mystery was supposed to be.

In economics and sociology, it’s not a guest who hasn’t got a room; it’s a foundational concept that hasn’t got a basis. You introduce that concept, and proceed to derive the rest of the course from it. It becomes a sort of base-camp assumption for the students’ thoughts, like mass-energy conservation for physics students or Darwinian natural selection for biology students. By the end of the first semester, it’s become so familiar that they assume anyone who questions it is simply ignorant.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Kiwi bloke is an environmental hazard

It’s winter where I live, and it’s a doozy. We’ve had snow to sea level and frosts like I remember from the 1990s, and this year New Zealand’s annual 100-year flood happened to hit my town – I have the good fortune of living on a slight rise, but less than a block away people were wading. Naturally people are arguing this shows global warming isn’t happening. Of course that gets it all backwards. If you’re standing outside a tramping hut in the mountains on a sunny morning, and a shovelful of snow falls off the roof and goes down your neck, you end up colder, but it’s because the roof is warming up (and melting the snow). The roof in this analogy stands for the South Polar Vortex, where the air around Antarctica gets so cold in the winter that it slams down, walling off the polar weather from the rest of us. Usually. Up until now.

Recently, we found out that New Zealand is a world front-runner in climate change denial. The good news is it only takes 13% to be a world front-runner. But I guess this is where we finally kiss our vaunted “clean, green image” goodbye. Though admitting how we’re actually doing on the environmental front would instantly lose us our world market for dairy products, tourism, and filming locations, which put together are nearly our entire national income, so maybe not. Actually shaping up is, of course, out of the question. That would cost rich people money.

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence that human industry is driving climate change; that would take far more time and energy than I have, it would be too wordy to hold any denier’s attention long enough to convince them, and there are plenty of other sites that do it better than I could – here are three. I will spare a brief word for the idea that humans are too puny and insignificant to affect the cycles of Nature. That’s an intuitive percept rather than an evidential argument, so it needs an intuitive answer.

I’ll confidently bet that practically all my readers are reading this in a built-up environment of some kind, or at least a farm, not out in the wilderness. Well, Earth was all wilderness until humans came along. The last thing that changed the surface of the planet as much as humans have was the emergence of the first land plants and animals back in the Carboniferous Period. For hundreds of millions of years the world was forests, deserts, plains, savannah. Then suddenly, in less than a ten-thousandth of that time – farms, buildings, quarries, mines, roads, towns, reservoirs, aqueducts, cities, railways, landfills, sewage outfalls. Is it really so hard to believe our activities might have had unintended environmental effects as profound as the intended ones? No, we aren’t big enough to chop down the entire tree of life on Earth, but we could easily break off the branches holding up our own treehouse.

But I don’t think that’s the main reason why New Zealanders don’t believe in climate change. I think the main reason looks like this:

Blogger Cameron Slater sneering at the camera

No, I’m not accusing Cameron Slater of running New Zealand’s denialist platform singlehandedly, though he does have disproportionate influence for a blogger (which is why I’m not linking to his blog; Google “whale oil” if you want to find him). It’s the expression I’m talking about, and the attitude underneath it. I am quite familiar with it; this is the look on a playground bully’s face right before he hits you. This face is what comes to my mind when people wax poetic about the good old sports-loving, beer-drinking, do-it-yourselfing, supposedly-maligned Kiwi Bloke. Because this is also the face of a New Zealand male when someone tries to alert him to a problem that doesn’t, as far as he can see, affect him personally.

It’s not just climate change. The Bloke Sneer is the standard response to a precaution recommended against any harm that hasn’t so far materialized in the Bloke’s own life. Boating safety measures, for instance. Hence (I surmise) why New Zealand men drown at such high rates. That might be considered grist for the Darwin Awards, but often it’s other people’s safety that gets sneered away – we have a higher rate of workplace injury than most OECD countries, as employers Bloke-Sneer at the health and safety regulations. And it’s not just a matter of harming people negligently; New Zealand schools have a chronic bullying problem. I think that’s a root of the Bloke Sneer problem as well as a fruit of it, insofar as surviving in that environment forces you to develop a highly-tuned scorn reflex. Anything you are seen to genuinely care about can be used to hurt you.

I suspect the Bloke Sneer is also the main reason why New Zealand isn’t as religious as the United States. I must admit, it does bear a certain superficial resemblance to scientific scepticism. However, the Bloke Sneer yawns at evidence and snickers at reason. Being primarily an emotional reflex, it’s not going to form a completely consistent philosophy; but if you were to write down its underlying logic, the epistemic component would read “Anyone coming at you with an agenda – of any kind – can be dismissed without a hearing”.

It’s perfectly sensible to be wary of people with axes to grind, of course. We humans instinctively set the evidentiary bar lower for propositions that suit us than for propositions that don’t, and a prudent sceptic will adjust for their informants’ biases. But the sceptic should know to take especial care to adjust for their own biases, and the Bloke Sneer does the opposite. An “agenda” just means something you want or hope for, and are prepared to work for. And if you see a real problem looming in the future, you’re going to want to change it, aren’t you?

Logically, therefore, “All agendas should be dismissed” is functionally equivalent to “There is no such thing as a problem”. The Bloke Sneer is a sign not of tough-mindedness or scepticism, but of the woolliest kind of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why we don’t celebrate “straight pride”

A few days ago, around when the US Supreme Court made marriage equality constitutional, an old friend posted this on Facebook:

Straight Pride — Funny thing... I’ve seen others post this and they are attacked viciously.  Apparently it is now intolerant and bigoted to be straight and proud in this upside down, politically correct society we live in.  I invite everyone who is straight and unashamed to post this on your wall.

The quickest way to see the problem with this is to take the word “straight” each time it occurs in the image and replace it with “white”. There’s nothing wrong with being white any more than there is with being straight, but the phrase “white pride” is disturbing nonetheless, and for good reason. See, “black pride” and “queer pride” both have a history behind them: a history of disempowerment, marginalization, humiliation; a history of being “lesser” in the eyes of society. The “pride” movements are about defying that humiliation and that disempowerment, about refusing to be “lesser”. They’re about raising oneself up to the level of the white or straight majority and demanding to be treated like a fellow human being. Now, the white people and the straight people are already on the higher level, being treated as human beings; if they raise themselves higher than they already are, the result is that we once again have a two-tier society, with white / straight people on top and everyone else a step down. That’s why “straight pride” is a bad thing, even though being straight isn’t.

It’s entirely possible that this simply didn’t occur to my friend. It happens. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve hurt people or crossed boundaries without meaning to, I would be cringing in retrospective shame in a much fancier house. But intention, as I’ve been told a couple of those times, isn’t magic. Harm done by mistake is still harm. If someone stands on your toe completely by accident, it hurts just as much as if it was on purpose. You’ll still probably yell out in pain and ask them to move their foot. It’s not that whether they intended to hurt you doesn’t matter, but that it matters because of how it drives their response to your pain. Let’s suppose someone’s trodden on you; you’ve yelled “Ow! You’re on my toe!”; and they make one of the following possible responses. I think you’ll agree with me that only one of these is acceptable.

  1. [hastily removes foot] “Oh! I’m so sorry! Are you badly hurt? I hope I haven’t broken anything. Can you walk? If it’s serious I’ll take you to the emergency doctor. I’m so sorry.”
  2. [still standing on you] “Well, I didn’t do it with the intention of hurting you. It’s not my fault your foot got in my way. How dare you accuse me of being the kind of person who stomps on people’s toes on purpose! Maybe you need stronger shoes.”
  3. [silence, aims another stomp at your toes]

Now let’s switch roles: you’ve stood on someone else’s foot by mistake. It’s natural to want them to be very clear that you are not in category C, so even people who are genuinely in category A usually mix in a lot of “I didn’t mean to!”s with their apologies. But if that’s your primary concern, and especially if you think that your innocent intentions excuse you from the effort of repairing the harm you’ve done, then – sorry – you are in category B.

Only I’m not sure that’s what’s actually going on here. Look again at the wording on the Straight Pride image: the writer thinks the widespread rejection of “straight pride” shows our society to be “upside-down” and “politically correct”. In discussions of sexual diversity, these are red flags that someone is in category C: that is, they act harmfully towards non-conforming genders and sexualities, if only in terms of public expression. Well, there are highly specific situations in which an otherwise harmful act is an appropriate response, and it’s my bet that the writer thought the Supreme Court decision was one of them. Some examples might be

  • smacking a toddler away from a hot stove
  • performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on someone who’s choking
  • amputating a gangrenous foot

These acts all have something fairly obvious in common: a context of imminent, severe danger, which justifies drastic steps to counteract it. Imagine smacking a toddler away from a harmless cupboard, or doing the Heimlich on someone who’s not choking, or amputating a healthy foot. It wouldn’t be enough to plead that you sincerely believed there was danger; you have to have a compelling reason to believe there was danger. Precisely because you’re trying to do the right thing and help somebody, it’s crucial to get the facts right. Granted, a “straight pride” meme doesn’t do very serious harm compared to some other things people do to those who don’t conform to gender norms; but those other things are motivated by the same attitude, which therefore needs to be confronted wherever it appears.

Only, when I say “attitude”, you’re picturing someone nasty, right? My mental image is of the boys at my schools who called me “poofter” and “fag” and various other synonyms (pretty sure they weren’t detecting my actual bisexuality, which I was in ironclad denial about; I just fit their stereotype of what a gay person was like). But there’s a reason why no-one admits to being one of the Nasty People, and it’s the paragraph above this one. Occasionally, harmful acts are genuinely justified by the context – and the sincere belief that one of those occasions has arrived is the state of mind in which approximately 90% of violence is committed. Mostly, when people hurt other people, it’s through trying to do the right thing. Hatred, from the inside, feels like “I am a good person and this has to stop.”

Which is why I am not remotely impressed by this webcomic, which also crossed my Facebook feed in the day or two after the Supreme Court decision. A guy called Adam Ford is opposed to gay marriage, and what’s more he thinks gay sex is evil, but he wants gay people to be very clear that he doesn’t hate them, he loves them. What really gets me is when he insists that he is not trying to do this:

“My way is better than your way!”

but rather this:

“God’s way is better than our way!”

See what’s wrong here? Ford, here represented by the guy on the left, believes certain things about God – at minimum, that (s)he exists, that (s)he disapproves of gay sex and gay marriage, that her/his approval is a sound basis for moral judgement. The generic gay person represented by the guy on the right presumably disbelieves at least one of these things. Ford presents no argument whatever in favour of any of them. So the second cartoon still amounts to no more than “My way (of thinking about God) is better than your way.” As the comic proceeds Ford starts citing the Bible, but again with no explanation of why the Bible would be a better moral guide than, say, the works of Shakespeare. His claims still don’t exceed “My way (of assessing the value of the Bible) is better than your way.”

For all his self-professed love of gay people, Ford offers no assurance that they will not be stigmatized, dehumanized, or made “lesser” if they stop having sex with the people they’re attracted to, like he wants. All he has to offer is a feeling. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think love is the ultimate social value. I think trust is. I only need a dozen or so people in my life to love me; I need to be able to trust everyone I meet. I need to be sure they won’t harm me. If their interests clash with mine, which is what happens when you put independent individuals in a space with finite resources, I need to be able to enter a rational conversation with them to resolve the clash. There might be a good reason why they should get their way and I shouldn’t, but if so then both of us will be able to see that reason, because the truth is the truth for everybody. Whether it’s a selfish reason or a selfless one isn’t the point.

We humans have evolved part of the way to understanding the importance of trust. That’s where our moral instincts come from in the first place. Unfortunately, we’re adapted for survival in the world of the first 90% of human existence, which was like The Walking Dead with animal predators instead of zombies. You live in a small group of close friends and family, and if you meet strangers you can never be certain they aren’t planning to kill you and take your stuff – or on a hair-trigger in case you were planning to kill them and take their stuff.

We therefore have a flaw woven into our moral sense, which says that only people who do things our way deserve full respect as human beings. Except we don’t think of it as “our way”, or we’d see what an unjust attitude this is. We think of it as the “proper” way, like the three-year-old who, told to say “Spasibo” to a Russian visitor who was giving her an apple, haughtily replied “No. I will say ‘Thank you’ properly.” And sometimes, we can become morally outraged when people do things “improperly”, and harm them – all the while thinking we’re being especially upright. This is not conducive to mutual trust. Morality must be rational, or it is prejudice.

Friday, 19 June 2015

“Reverse racism” yet again turns out not to be

Apparently South Auckland police have been instructed not to ticket Māori drivers caught driving without a licence. Instead they’re to refer them to community services for support. Predictably, New Zealand political Facebook groups have gone ballistic. At least one of them banned people from discussing this topic just because the comments were coming in too thick, fast, and nasty.

This wasn’t a Government policy release, by the way. For a rare wonder a New Zealand news outfit actually seems to have done some digging; less encouragingly, they’ve pounced on a point guaranteed to get the Anti-PC Brigade frothing at the mouth about “Mowreys” getting “special treatment”. Those of us who have the patience to read past the headline soon encounter the sentence

And police say they have the discretion to do the same for non-Māori drivers, but that’s not spelt [out] in the document.

Which makes the statement a few paragraphs down all the more puzzling:

So how do police determine if a driver is in fact Māori? Police whom One News has spoken to in South Auckland say they find this confusing and they have not been with singling out Māori [sic] in the first place. They say they’ve raised concerns with their bosses but have been told it’s a new policy and they have to get used to it.

Well, here’s a hint, guys: you have the discretion to do the same for non-Māori drivers, so how about you go ahead and act on the new policy whenever you’re in doubt? (The Equal Justice Project reports that the policy has been in place for over ten years, it’s just that this one document happened to mention Māori in particular.)

One News didn’t follow up the bit where the police said the aim was to “reduce Māori offending”. I was never exactly a professional journalist even by the standards of student magazines, but I would have known enough to ask how the police thought that was going to work. Since they didn’t ask, we can only guess. Is it naïve to hope that the police are twigging on to the fact that people who can’t trust them aren’t likely to listen to them? Probably.

See, there was a time when my partner kept getting pulled over for licence checks when she was driving. After this had happened several times she asked one cop why he’d picked on her. He answered “General condition of the car.” And that car was in pretty shabby condition – she got rid of it soon after. You see the logic: drivers of shabby cars are more likely to be unlicensed, or committing some other crime that you can bust them for (such as cannabis possession), than the population average. Therefore, pulling shabby cars over will net them more arrests than randomly sampling the driving population.

Thing is, you can get rid of a shabby car. Unfortunately, exactly the same logic applies if you replace “shabby car” with “brown driver”. It’s not that there’s an especially strong correlation between being brown and being unlicensed or criminal; a weak correlation would be enough. What makes brownness a tempting criterion for profiling is that it’s visible at a glance, whereas more relevant variables like one’s degree of economic desperation or anger towards society are even harder to detect than the crimes themselves.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t fair. And its unfairness causes two major problems, which together come back around and create a vicious circle. One is that people denied justice by the state are often left no choice but to pursue it themselves, a phenomenon which accounts for the great majority of violent crime. The other is that when a visibly different minority group are often seen in handcuffs or the dock, this creates a certain impression about them in the minds of the majority, which throws obstacles in the path of innocent members of the group whenever they seek employment, rental accommodation, bank loans, or what-have-you; and that, as well as being unjust, further undermines the minority group’s incentive to trust the system or obey its rules. I would confidently bet that these two conditions fully account for whatever real correlation there might be between brown skin and criminal behaviour.

So if South Auckland police have figured this out, and are trying to redress the balance that their own profiling practices have thrown off-kilter – well, better late than never. But good luck trying to get this country’s media to present that side of the story honestly.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Keeping the market honest

At least two people died last August due to New Zealand’s disgraceful lack of rental housing standards. And not in privately-owned rental accommodation either – these were both state houses. There is a Bill before Parliament to introduce “warrants of fitness” for houses like we already have for cars; I believe National have already voted it down once.

Here’s a comment from Facebook, representative of the National point of view:

Look at it from the other side: they voted against rising rents.

Maybe. But funnily enough, people seemed to manage in 18th-century England when – against exactly the same objection – a law was brought in mandating at least one toilet in every residence. Whatever extra the poor residents might have had to pay in rent, they gained back in not dying of cholera. Asthma is less often fatal than cholera, but the principle is the same.

I can hear the response now – “So what you’re saying is, people will willingly pay the higher rent if their family’s health is that important to them? Leave it to the market.” There are two problems with this. One is that these are state houses. They’re owned by Housing NZ, which dates back to the days when New Zealand’s government had a philosophy of actually doing something about things like homelessness. They’re not some middle-aged couple’s retirement fund. Housing NZ is not obliged to pass on refurbishment costs to its tenants. We wouldn’t even have to take more money off rich people whose houses aren’t giving their children asthma; we seem to have $27 million sitting around to change the national flag, for instance. I’m not enamoured of New Zealand’s current flag but children with asthma are more important.

The second problem is that the free-market model in economics assumes that both buyers and sellers have perfect market information. This assumption is behind a lot of the mismatches between economic theory and reality. In this particular case, imagine that landlords have the option of renting out both houses that meet the standard and houses that don’t. Now presumably it costs a certain amount of money to keep the houses patched up to standard, so those houses will have higher rents. But the tenant doesn’t know how much money it costs, so the landlord can whack the rent up by a good deal more than that and make a neat little profit on houses specifically advertised as “up to standard”. Tenants who can’t afford the higher price will have to be content with houses that are still substandard. If the standard is compulsory, on the other hand, then price-jacking like that will do nothing but lose you tenants. Regulations, in fact, fix the imperfect-information problem – and thereby keep the market honest.

Monday, 1 June 2015

How evolutionary psychology supports feminism

Yes, I know, that title could just about be my tag-line. Most of my blog these days seems to be about how various evo-psych concepts actually have feminist, rather than anti-feminist, implications. So I thought I’d gather it all together in one place for convenience of reference. (Indeed, parts of this post are directly copypasted from older ones.) Evolutionary biology is one of my persistent fascinations, and I really don’t like seeing misogynists using it as ammunition against social justice for women. Which is how it gets used a lot. Basically, if you get a guy on the internet mansplaining to you how oppression is due to biology and you should just accept it, please feel most free to link to this post.

Speaking of mansplainers, before I get into specifics: there’s a widespread double standard where, if something specific to women’s minds has a biological component, this means that women are irrational and their needs should be ignored, but if something specific to men’s minds has a biological component, this means that men can’t change and their needs should be pandered to. I’m making this explicit so you know that anyone trying to score that sort of point from what I say in this post is being deliberately dishonest, not just thoughtlessly inconsistent.

There’s another kind of dishonest quote-mining I’d like to forestall, too. Natural selection works on gene pools, that is populations of interbreeding individuals. “Women evolved to have trait X”, for instance, is a shorthand for “On average, women who had trait X had more surviving children than women who did not, and therefore trait X became more common in women of the next generation.” This does not mean to say that women who happen not to have trait X are therefore somehow not women, or not “proper” women, or any such nonsense. If you want to argue that, go do it on my previous post. Further, just because something is “natural” as in biological, that doesn’t mean it’s either desirable or unfixable. Actually, that’ll do for the first couple of points.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

What kind of construct is gender?

I have told you this story once before, but it was buried deep in my screed on evo psych and I wouldn’t blame you if you missed it. At the age of three, one of my nephews announced to my mother (his grandmother) that girls have blue eyes and boys have brown eyes. About nine out of ten for observation, there; only one member of our local family group breaks this rule, and he must not have looked in a mirror that day.

When his mother and I were that age – we’re twins – we had a magnetic letter tray, with plastic letters in four colours. We spontaneously came up with a treaty to avoid precedence disputes over letters: green and blue were boys’ colours, whereas red and yellow were girls’ colours. The convention was readily extended to the crayons and felt pens. Girls’ colours also included pink, purple, and white, while boys’ colours extended to orange, brown, black and grey. Why orange was a boys’ colour when red and yellow were girls’ colours, I could not for the life of me tell you now. But we both agreed that it was. Sadly, when we graduated to a larger set of felts, that overlooked inconsistency proved the downfall of the system. I think the disputatious item may have had the word “vermilion” printed on the side.

I repeat these charming vignettes, I think the word is, to draw your attention to three common features. First, as you’ve surely picked already, both involve gender binaries. Second, both binaries are false to the point of silliness, such that you only excuse their proponents because we were all preschoolers. And third, just so’s you know, both were spontaneous. Neither was endorsed by the authorities in our lives. In our case, admittedly, we may very well have heard from on high that pink was a girls’ colour, and probably also our toothbrushes and hairbrushes and what not would have been colour-coded just so our parents could remember which to use on whom. But, whenever they overheard us negotiating settlements, those same adults also told us in so many words that the notion of girls’ colours and boys’ colours in general was daft. We ignored them. We weren’t about to give up any cultural convention that had proved such a powerful force for peace.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

How political correctness saved civilization

Last week, a woman who works as a waitress at an Auckland café told the left-wing Daily Blog that whenever Prime Minister John Key patronized her place of work he would come up behind her and pull her hair, and he had laughed off her discomfort until her manager backed her up, after which he presented her with two bottles of wine as an apology, apparently under the misapprehension that pulling someone’s hair when they don’t want you to constitutes some kind of relationship. A reporter from the NZ Herald rang her posing as the café company’s PR department, and the following day her name was published nationwide without her consent. I guess they were betting that, being young, female, a worker, a Daily Blog follower, and willing to call out harassment by a powerful person, her political views would be significantly leftward of the Prime Minister’s. This proved to be the case, and so they’ve been able to frame the whole thing as a politically-motivated smear campaign.

I would just like to point out, before we go any further, that there’s been a case recently where someone identifiable only as “a prominent New Zealander” has been caught sexually assaulting underage girls. He – the perpetrator, I think this needs emphasis – has been granted permanent name suppression, contrary to the wishes of his victims and their families. That means I can’t spell out his connection to the Prime Minister here, nor link you to someone who can. But Google around the Australian news sites and you should find him. New Zealand is now a place where sexual perpetrators get more legal protection than their victims, if they happen to have government connections.

Now a friend of a friend wrote a Note on Facebook explaining exactly what the problem is with the Prime Minister’s behaviour; it’s here, with permissions set to Public, so if you have a Facebook account you should be able to read it. I have little to add to what he says in the Note, but I do have a response to make to the person who (at the time I read it) was the most prolific commenter.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Remembrance and hypocrisy

One hundred years ago the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the coast of Gallipoli in Turkey, their mission being to take out the Ottoman artillery which had held back the Allied navy from securing the region. The immediate objective was to allow military traffic between the West and Russia, while closing it off for the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; in the longer term, the British Empire hoped to gain privileged access to Middle Eastern oil, having recently upgraded their navy from coal-powered to oil-powered ships. Reconnaissance of the area had been grossly inadequate, and the Anzacs found themselves facing a steep slope and a well-prepared enemy. The Ottoman army couldn’t stop the landing but easily prevented the Anzacs from advancing past the beach. A classic war of attrition followed, with corpses mounting on both sides for very little strategic gain.

New Zealand and Australia commemorate the anniversary every year on what we call Anzac Day. It’s become a bigger and bigger thing recently as the centenary approaches. Red poppies appear all over the place like Santa Clauses at Christmas, phrases like “Honour the Fallen” and “We Will Remember Them” being the equivalent of “Season’s Greetings”. Predictably, our cultural gatekeepers seem to have decided that the Fallen are best honoured by sanctifying the lies that got them killed. But they’ve revised and updated them, because “freedom and democracy” are more appealing causes nowadays than “king and country”. I suppose that’s progress of a sort. (World War II, at least the European arena of it, could reasonably be called a war for freedom and democracy; World War I cannot.)

At least the Anzacs at Gallipoli were all volunteer soldiers, not conscripts. The following year New Zealand passed an Act of Parliament drastically reducing the permissible grounds of conscientious objection – you only got out of military service if you belonged to one of three small religious groups who believed God forbade it. Otherwise, you were arrested and shipped to the front by force. Then you were punished like any disobedient soldier, which as flogging had recently been banned typically meant you were tied to something and left there for hours, often in places likely to come under enemy fire. Deserters were shot, and in some places advancing troops were followed by squads called “file closers” with orders to kill straggling men of their own side.

I wear a white poppy on Anzac Day, not a red one. I don’t do it to disrespect the soldiers who have died in war, though that accusation was certainly levelled at the white poppy when it first came into the public eye a few years ago. The thing is, wars kill more than just soldiers. We in the West are in the privileged position of losing only soldiers to war, because in the last seventy-odd years we’ve always been the invaders, and it’s been Johnny Foreign across the sea whose civilians get the pointy end. It is a terrible thing to be sent into harm’s way by your government, but it is also a terrible thing to be cluster-bombed, napalmed, mined, or drone-struck. Those who call my concern for the latter an insult to the former will get no respect from me.

Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and John Key, having zero sense of irony, have decided that the centenary of Gallipoli is a good time to have Australian and New Zealand military personnel headed for a conflict in the Middle East. This is particularly poignant for New Zealand, since we proudly abstained from George Bush’s Iraq War. OK, sure, ISIS are very bad people, and they are killing lots of people. That actually doesn’t make it OK to go around killing just as many people ourselves just in the hope that some of them will be ISIS.

ISIS may be doing things that are as bad as what the Nazis did, but they are not the threat that the Nazis were. They don’t have the industrial infrastructure to produce armaments, they don’t have productive land to feed soldiers on. Cut off their supply of weapons and they’ll be stuck. I’m no military strategist, but wouldn’t a moratorium on the arms trade be just a little bit helpful here? As for the human rights violations, surely the least the West could do is open our arms to refugees from the conflict. If we’re going to go in there at all, let it be to help smuggle innocent people out. Well, New Zealand isn’t increasing our refugee intake this year, and – look, just go and Google “Australia refugees”, OK? I’ll wait.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Science: you don’t get to pick and choose

Earlier this week, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a new policy: people on welfare benefits will lose their payments if they don’t get their children vaccinated. New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key responded with a statement that we will not be following suit, thus demonstrating that he is a wiser and better man than Tony Abbott. (This is such a low bar to clear that the fact that it needs pointing out actually reflects badly on Key. There are things growing on the bottom of ponds that are wiser and better than Tony Abbott.)

I am pro-vaccination – strongly so – and I think this is a terrible idea. I’m pro-vaccination because there are some children who can’t be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons, and their only hope of escaping diseases like measles or polio is if the children around them have all been vaccinated and hence are guaranteed not to be carriers. This policy will not help those children. It will harm them.

Since the announcement a couple of New Zealand public figures have stood up in support of Abbott. One is the Act party’s sole Member of Parliament, David Seymour. Another, I’m afraid, is a doctor. Now doctors have to clean up after the anti-vaxxers, so I guess I can understand why he would feel like something has to be done. While to a certain extent parents have to make medical decisions on their children’s behalf, children are human beings with rights too – including the right not to be needlessly exposed to the risk of horrible infections. But although something does indeed have to be done, this isn’t it.

Please, my fellow science enthusiasts on the internet, do not go holding up Tony Abbott as a role model for your own politicians. He supports punishing poor people if they don’t get vaccinations, but he is also an active climate change denier. Yes, a climate change denier in charge of a country. To Abbott, it appears, the measure of whether science is good or bad is whether policies derived from it inconvenience the poor or the rich. And that, folks, is the attitude we have to fight, if we ever want to live in a world not destined for a disastrous collision with reality.

Friday, 27 March 2015

On hipster beards and gender essentialism

The background: someone posted this Herald article, entitled “Hipster beards are just a way to get women – study”, on a feminist Facebook group that I follow. The first comment on it read “I would love to know what Daniel Copeland thinks of this.” I started to answer, and then found it was getting long enough to be a blog post, and hey, I haven’t got a blog post yet this week, so...

Well, since I’ve been asked for my opinion – the first thing I notice is the title. I used to work at a magazine, and I know what editors do to titles. “This will get people to click the link” always trumps “This actually has something to do with the content” (let alone “This summarizes the content non-misleadingly”, which seldom gets a look-in).

So it’s an evolutionary psychology study. There’s a solid core of good theory under evo psych, but there’s also a lot of poorly-evidenced studies around, especially in areas relating to gender. (Evo psych examines a much broader range of topics than just gender, but you’d never know it from the media coverage.) The science reporting in this instance is so bad that I can’t tell for sure whether this study is one of the good ones or one of the bad ones; my money’s on the latter. See, evo psych has a communication problem (quite apart from the number of poorly-evidenced studies it seems to generate). Actually, most biological sciences run into this problem at some point, but they’re particularly egregious in evo psych.

Friday, 20 March 2015

“Drives” and human behaviour

So I’ve been having a conversation with my friend Wolfboy in the comments to my recent post about Richard Dawkins – or rather, about the Drive Threshold Model that Dawkins discovered and what it teaches us about rape culture, i.e. that even if rapists are motivated by sex desire, “not dressing like a slut” still isn’t going to be an effective precaution against rape. And I was just on the point of writing another big reply as an addendum to my existing reply, when it occurred to me that the points I wanted to talk about could make their own blog post, which I’m accordingly writing now. Well, when I say “writing”, a lot of it is copypasted from that conversation.

In the original post I made a slightly misleading analogy:

It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

The misleading bit was where I linked one’s level of hunger to how long it’s been since they’ve had food. That is how hunger works, more or less, but it’s not how sexual desire works. I mean, OK, there is a sort of urgent edge of feeling that builds up over time like that, but it can be discharged by, shall we say, taking matters into one’s own hands. Your level of attraction to other people doesn’t drop down when you have sex and then steadily build up again.

Wolfboy made a cogent response:

I think the complicating factor with sex drives and rape as compared to hunger and food is that a) without food you’ll die, so the drive is a bit more fundamental and b) you don’t need to have any sort of relationship with your food while you do need to decide what sort of relationship you want with a sex partner.

Morally and rationally, Wolfboy is correct. The problem is, we’re talking about drives here.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Goodbye and thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett

I still own several Discworld books with the old “About the author” blurb that begins “Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead.” That sentence is now only half true. Because of the International Date Line, it was Friday the 13th here when I found out he had died. This seemed appropriate.

I met him three times, if thirty seconds in a book-signing queue counts as “meeting”. The first time, I was fifteen, and the signing was at my high school. I remember hurrying to get to the auditorium in time for his talk, and very nearly bumping into him in the corridor – a small man, egg-bald, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, and eyes that looked like he had had some bad news earlier that day. That last impression stands out in my memory because it was so unusual for me to notice anything like that when I was fifteen. (Even today, I’m not fantastic at facial expressions.)

And now I’m sitting here trying to pick one thing or a few things out of his immense body of work, and tell you how it impacted on me. This is difficult. Even doing it chronologically is proving to be a problem, because it goes so far back that I honestly don’t remember what the first Pratchett book I read was. I’m almost sure it was either Wyrd Sisters or Moving Pictures. I do remember reading Reaper Man when it was new out, and that was the one after Moving Pictures. And I can tell you that Pratchett got me out of the endless loop of Tolkien that I got stuck in for a bit there in my teenage – not that there’s anything wrong with being a Tolkien fan, needless to say, but it’s better to read more than one author. Pratchett showed me that fantasy doesn’t have to be about battles and kings and the fate of the world. Ordinary people’s stories are worth reading too.

There was darkness under Pratchett’s good humour. When Robin Williams died last year a lot of people pointed out that comics tend to have honed their craft battling inner demons. Williams’ familiar demon was sadness; Pratchett’s, according to Neil Gaiman who knew him for nearly half his life, was anger. It’s no coincidence that his two most complex and fully realized protagonists, Granny Weatherwax and Commander Samuel Vimes, both wrestle perpetually to control pent-up inner fountains of rage. Rage at what? For their author, rage at the unfairness of the world; rage at how stupid people can be. I don’t mean the sneering “Why do I have to put up with you peasants?” kind of anger at stupidity – I mean that Pratchett saw how officialdom and pomposity and cant and petty-mindedness get people hurt. And he could never quite shrug it off with an “Oh well, life’s not fair, that’s how it is.” Pratchett always cared what happened to people. He stood for practicality and hard work like Kipling, and for social justice like Dickens.

But perhaps because he lived with darkness, Pratchett also learned to embrace it. He made Death a sympathetic character, “not cruel, just terribly good at his job” (and how those words sting just now!): calm, friendly, professional, fond of little pleasures like good food and the company of cats, but perpetually bemused by the foibles of humanity. I don’t have figures on how much that one creative choice has helped people cope with the inevitable end of life. Apparently elderly readers used to write to him, hoping he’d got Death right. Other fantasy franchises seem to be adopting the idea, at least partly. Much of Supernatural is blatantly pinched from Pratchett, though their Death character is slightly sterner and quicker on the uptake. Harry Potter may not have a personified Death, but Rowling’s treatment of it – calm, courageous acceptance – has a distinctly Pratchettian feel.

I toyed with the idea of writing a short story for this post, where Pratchett himself meets Death, but there’ve been a couple of good ones already that I won’t try and better. Let me instead say farewell by echoing the final few entries on his Twitter:

At last, Sir Terry, we must walk together.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Richard Dawkins’ biggest contribution to feminism

No, it’s not “nothing”. Look, hear me out, OK? Yes, as a public figure Dawkins has said a lot of bigoted things in the last few years about women and sexual assault. In his books he discusses sexism every so often; it seems he thinks that prejudice about people’s gender is an equally big mistake regardless of which gender one is prejudiced against. Which is perhaps true purely in terms of whether your judgement of an individual person is likely to be right or wrong, but our society is heavily biased towards some kinds of gender prejudice and away from others, with moral and political consequences that can’t be ignored – except he does ignore them. (He also, disturbingly regularly, comments sympathetically on paedophilia. I devoutly hope the reason he gives in his autobiography is the real one: that he feels guilty about having been party to driving the teacher who molested him in boyhood to suicide.)

But before Dawkins was a public figure or a popular writer, he was a scientist. His research was on animal behaviour. And his big discovery, back in the late 1960s, is called the Drive Threshold Model. He tested it in chicks, which apparently show a definite colour preference when pecking at small objects: blue is preferred to red and red to green. Now you might think that this means a chick will always choose to peck a blue object when there’s one available, and a red one when there isn’t, and a green one only if there’s nothing else. But apparently not. Rather, when a chick’s drive to peck is low, it will only peck at blue objects; if it gets higher, it will peck randomly at either blue or red objects and ignore green; at the heights it will peck at any colour indiscriminately. Hence the term “drive threshold”.

If this only applied to chicks it would be pretty pointless me repeating it. But Dawkins applied the mathematics to a wide range of psychological studies on humans, measuring preferential behaviour towards flavours, colours, vegetables, handwriting styles, and composers. It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

Now here comes the point. Women want to keep themselves safe from rape. And lots of people, not all of them men, have a helpful suggestion: maybe women should not “dress like sluts”, especially when out after dark. And this, funnily enough, makes a lot of women angry, because it places the responsibility on women not to be raped instead of on men not to rape. To which those giving the warnings reply that it’s no different from warning people to keep their cars locked in areas prone to theft, which is hardly taking responsibility away from the thieves, is it? In fact it is different, as New Zealand discovered in 2013, when a man was acquitted of a sexual assault that he had confessed to committing, on the grounds that his two female victims were “foolish” to have been crossing a park at night while “dressed as they were”.

But setting aside the ethics of such precautions – do they work? Let’s suppose that most sexual assaults are committed by men trying to satisfy their own sexual desires (obviously in a predatory, totally objectifying way). Let’s also suppose that in general men have a sexual preference for some styles of dress over others. Both these suppositions seem plausible enough at first glance, but I don’t know what the actual evidence is for either one. Obviously if one of them is not true then the whole thing is moot, the precautions don’t work. The point is that you still can’t conclude that dressing down will make a woman safe, because of what happens above drive thresholds. If a man is prepared to sexually assault strangers at night to satisfy his sex drive, it’s a reasonable guess that he must have a high sex drive at the time – way over the threshold where his preferences about clothing make any difference. The Drive Threshold Model therefore predicts that his choice of victim will have nothing to do with the way she’s dressed.

From which I draw three conclusions. In ascending order of importance—

For social justice people: the findings of science are not biased, or at least not hopelessly biased, by the scientists’ ideology. Biology is not the enemy.

For evo psych buffs: feminism will usually turn out to be right. Go ahead and bet on it.

For everyone: stop freaking telling women not to dress like sluts and they’ll be safe from rape. It doesn’t work.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Ships that pass in the night

If I ever get my hands on a working time-machine, the first thing I shall do is organize a public debate between C. S. Lewis and Steven Pinker. Not (I’m sure they would both protest) that it would be an especially momentous encounter compared to what you could do with a time-machine. If all goes well, rest assured I will also talk to Shakespeare and Virgil and Homer and the author of Beowulf, document the Polynesian conquest of the Pacific and the first people in the Americas and Australia, film mammoths and indricotheres and dinosaurs in their natural habitat, witness the origin of life, and all that other guff. But the Lewis-Pinker debate will serve as a proof of concept.

Why those two in particular? Because they are so different and yet so similar. Both are fascinated by language, and by what it reveals about the mind. It seemed a little too good to be true, a few years ago, when a manuscript was discovered containing Lewis’s opening contribution to a planned collaborative work with J. R. R. Tolkien, to be entitled Language and Human Nature. Sadly, Seven magazine, which I gather printed the fragment, hasn’t uploaded it to the web. It was never completed because Tolkien was as bad at finishing things as I am, and also he was bogged down in The Lord of the Rings at the time the project began. But that tantalizing title could be the subtitle for most of Pinker’s popular works. On language, Pinker and Lewis nearly always agree.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Not in my name

Today New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key announced in Parliament that New Zealand would be sending troops to Iraq to help the US fight the Islamic State. There was no vote.

I could really just finish with that. When you look at the other parties’ responses it’s pretty clear why National didn’t risk putting it to a vote. The aim, Key says, is to protect “the rule of law”, which he identified with “the international rules-based system”. I’m not sure whether I’m alarmed or relieved that he didn’t claim to be acting for “democracy”. Was that because he thinks you can have the rule of law without democracy? Or was the irony of sending people to die for democracy without a vote just that little bit too uncomfortable even for him?

Here’s the thing, if you don’t see the problem. Every system of government is “rules-based”. Slavery was “rules-based”, with rules like “Slaves must not run away” and “Slaves may not be taught to read”. The Nazis had all sorts of rules – about who could marry whom, about what you could say about the Führer. There is no reason in principle why rules shouldn’t coexist comfortably with hideous violence. The question that matters is whether the rules are devised by the powerful or by the people.

But given the disgraceful behaviour of the New Zealand police at the Auckland Pride Parade on Saturday, I’d say the people who run our country have long since forgotten that.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Atheism is not a vaccine against bigotry

The three victims of the Chapel Hill shooting

A couple of days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a guy called Craig Hicks walked into the house shared by his newly-married neighbours Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad and shot them and Mohammad’s visiting sister Razan, killing all three. Hicks’ immediate inspiration for the act seems to have been a parking dispute. Would he have done the same over a disagreement with his white neighbours, his neighbours with north-western European names, or his neighbours whose ancestors had lived more than two generations in the US? If so, it would break the nauseously familiar pattern that so far his crime seems to instantiate. Us-and-Them thinking cannot be uprooted from the human psyche; all the more urgent that its shoots be plucked off at first sight.

There’s a twist. As well as their skin colour, ethnicity, and provenance, the victims were all Muslim. That’s not the twist. Hicks advocates right-wing politics and opposes gun control. That’s not the twist either. The twist is that Hicks is an atheist, indeed a “New Atheist”, a devotee of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. It’s looking like his atheism was part of the parcel that led him to think shooting someone is OK if they’re Muslim and nick your parking space.

New Atheism is one of multiple crowds that I hang out on the fringes of. I’m not a big fan of Harris or Hitchens and my opinion of Dawkins has taken a pounding in the last couple of years, but I still admire Daniel C. Dennett and Steven Pinker, and I applaud Stephen Fry’s stance on God in the recent viral YouTube video. I could distance myself from Hicks by doing some Us-and-Themmery of my own – redneck! gun-nut! libertarian! patriarch! – but that wouldn’t be honest. His crime has no bearing on the existence or otherwise of God, but it has punctured the protective bubble of self-praise that New Atheists have blown up around ourselves, part of which was that New Atheists don’t blow that sort of bubble.

So here goes. No, violent aggression against people seen as “other” did not come into the world with religion. Most of today’s major religions became major by harnessing it, but it predates them and, if Hicks is anything to go by, will survive their demise. No, rejecting supernatural beliefs does not make you immune to it. Yes, reason is one of the antidotes, but for that to work you have to commit yourself to the use of reason as your sole means of persuasion. Using the word “reason” as a badge of superiority won’t cut it.

Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race. Yes, some of Islam’s sternest critics are former Muslims. Yes, they include leftists like Maryam Namazie as well as neocons like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yes, one can leave Islam through mental effort. No, that doesn’t make it OK to harass Muslims for being Muslims. Yes, everyone should have the right to free speech. No, that doesn’t mean Muslims have to stop complaining when people trash-talk them. Actually that’s kind of the opposite of what it means, when you think about it. Yes, false beliefs can be harmful. Yes, clinging to beliefs beyond the warrant of the evidence is therefore dangerous. No, that doesn’t mean it should be punished, except insofar as rational debate constitutes punishment.

No, Islam does not contain qualitatively nastier ideas than Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Yes, there is historical contingency as well as present geopolitics in the tangle of contributing factors that help explain why majority-Muslim countries nowadays are trailing the rest of the world on violence and human rights. Yes, particular readings of the Qur’an are part of the tangle. No, there is no sense in which they are “core beliefs” of Islam but the phobia of Jews, heresy, and Satan were not “core beliefs” of Christianity well into modern times.

Yes, 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo shootings were committed in the name of Islam. No, that doesn’t mean every single Muslim is more violent than every single non-Muslim, even by a tiny degree. It means, at most, that (at present) the proportion of people who are violent is slightly larger in Muslim populations than in other populations. If that justifies shooting Muslims, then the same logic mandates the extermination of men; the prevalence of violence among men is orders of magnitude greater than the prevalence of violence among women (and chronically so). No, Muslim immigrants into non-Muslim countries are not all sleeper agents of the global caliphate waiting for a signal to convert everyone by the sword. Not even mostly.

No, Muslims are not responsible for what other Muslims do just because they’re Muslims. That Enlightenment humanism stuff? That stuff we talk about, where you get judged by your individual actions, not the characteristics of a set that you happen to be a member of? That applies here too.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Whakamanatia te Tiriti

Imagine with me that you’ve got new neighbours, and they’ve offered you some kind of contract to let them use part of your property. Let’s say, just for the sake of the example, that your house has a garage and theirs doesn’t, but they have a car and you get by with a motorbike. So when they move in they knock on the door and ask if they can use your garage. You’re a bit dubious at first, but they come back the next day with a contract all drawn up that says they’ll give you regular payments for maintenance, they’ll always leave you room to store your motorbike in there, and if you need the garage for anything bigger all you need to do is ask and they’ll park on the street that day. You check and double-check the small print and it’s all legit, so you sign.

The following morning you awake to the sound of your neighbours converting your garage to a sleep-out for their teenage son. You run out, waving your copy of the contract and shouting angrily. They smile indulgently and produce their original version of the contract, with your signature impressed on it through carbon-paper. It’s written in their native language, and in translation (they explain) it gives them complete right of ownership over your garage in exchange for a small weekly payment. They apologize for having badly translated it when they gave it to you. But you signed, and they’ve started the weekly payments, they say, so the garage is theirs now.

Morally, you’ve been swindled. How about legally? If you took them to court, what would you argue? Supposing – at this point the analogy gets a little frayed, but we’re approaching the real thing a bit closer – supposing it turned out they belonged to a completely separate jurisdiction, so that you had to recourse to international law. What then?

As a matter of fact, international law has a well-recognised principle devised for this exact situation. After all, when two nations sign a treaty it’s quite likely that the signatories will be seeing it in two different languages. The principle that has been adopted in all such disputes is called contra proferentem, which is Latin for “against the one bringing it forth”. What this means in our analogy is that since you didn’t have any input into formulating the terms of the contract, the version you signed in your language is the only official version. The other one is null and void; you never signed that one! The fact that it was older, and contained the drafters’ true intention, is legally irrelevant.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sexism in the Bible

Look, I’m sorry about this. I don’t mean to pick on anybody, honest. But I’m trying to blog weekly if I possibly can, and that means I need to find something to comment on every week, and it’s much easier to comment on things I disagree with. And this is a topic on which I often encounter opinions I disagree with. So it will tend to come up. And Parliament wasn’t in session for the year when I began writing, and my only lecture over the summer is Chemistry, which doesn’t generate many disagreements. So it’s back to religion. My previous post discussed a conflict between Christianity and progressive politics, and that’s also the topic of this one. Sorry.

There was an argument on a friend’s Facebook over how sexist the Bible is. In my experience there are two ways these kinds of argument go, and this was the more common one, between Christians and non-Christians who agree that sexism is bad, disagreeing over whether the Bible is sexist (and therefore bad). The other way it goes is when Christians who think sexism is bad (and therefore the Bible can’t be sexist) argue with Christians who think the Bible is sexist (and therefore sexism can’t be bad). Either way, the non-sexist Christians always end up in a bit of a bind. You can get feminist messages out of the Bible if you wring it hard enough, of course, but then with sufficient verbal gymnastics you can get any message out of any text. Let me demonstrate, using a deliberately outrageous example.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Nerds, feminism, and privilege

Content note: rape, sexual entitlement, homophobia, suicidal thoughts

You know that thing the internet does, where comments inspire blog posts inspire articles inspire whole pop-cultural trends? It reminds me most of a drama-class exercise I once did (in preparation for my only stage performance ever, at Allen Hall Theatre), where everyone stands in a circle and you stare at the person opposite you, and any movement they might make, no matter how tiny or unintentional, you copy but make slightly larger. Gradually something that started as an involuntary twitch of a finger turns into a whole-body thrash. Anyway, it’s starting to do it again, and I find I have something to say on the issue.

It started with a guy called Scott Aaronson, who nearly a month ago wrote a short blog post on a physics teacher at MIT who’d been caught sexually harassing his students via e-mail. His comment section blossomed the way mine don’t, and about a week later the conversation had come around to the question of whether nerdy men are more creepy towards women than other men, or less, or about the same. And something someone said hit a nerve, and Aaronson gave a very personal response.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Hegel has a lot to answer for

Writing this post is making me a little edgy. Most of the friends I’ve made since leaving high school, I met through student activism in one capacity or another. Which means a lot of my friends are people who hold Marxism dear. That makes criticizing Marxism a painful thing for me to do. And it’s not as if I have to do it, exactly, I could just meander to the back of the crowd and mumble insincerely when my political coalition voices opinions that I find problematic in support of the positions that I am trying to help them defend. But I don’t feel that that’s entirely honest, for one thing; and also, unexamined assumptions in my worldview niggle at me. They keep me awake at night. So before I even start on what the problems are, let me talk about the parts of Marxist theory which I do agree with.
In fact, I’ll start with one that will most clearly establish where my loyalties lie. With the Marxists, and against free-market economic theory, I think that profit in a capitalist economy depends largely or wholly on the exploitation of labour. But this is going to make me look like an economic naïf if I don’t explain a bit. Which I don’t mind doing, because although I’ve said it a few times before, I think it’s one of those things that needs to be said again and again until people get it.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Et tu, Randall Munroe?

You all know who Randall Munroe is, right? Or at least if I put the letters X, K, C, and D together in that order you know what I’m talking about? Good.
xkcd is one of the science-y-est things on the internet. But even Munroe can slip on the old “I bet those scientists didn’t anticipate the potential flaw in their method that I spotted when I read a lay account that didn’t go into all the fiddly details about controls and things” banana-skin once in a while. Here’s the strip I’m talking about:
Our fMRI study found that subjects performing simple memory tasks showed activity in the parts of the brain associated with loud noises, claustrophobia, and the removal of jewellery.
Munroe’s mouse-over caption reads “They also showed activation in the parts of the brain associated with exposure to dubious study methodology, concern about unremoved piercings, and exasperation with fMRI techs who won’t stop talking about Warped Tour.”

Um, Randall? Do you know what the f in fMRI stands for? It’s “functional”. Functional magnetic resonance imaging differs from boring old magnetic resonance imaging in the software it uses, and what that software basically does is record changes in brain activity (well, in blood flow to particular parts of the brain) between the moment before the experimental stimulus and the moment after it. Any activity attendant on the experience of being in an fMRI machine, per se, will not change. It will be the same on both sides of the stimulus and so will cancel out.
Which doesn’t of course mean that science can’t or shouldn’t be criticized by non-experts. Just check whether they’ve figured out what you’ve figured out before you start telling people that they haven’t, OK?

Thursday, 27 November 2014

This time, there is a right side and a wrong side to be on

I wasn’t going to say anything about what’s going on in Ferguson because I haven’t got anything to say that isn’t already being said. I’m white, so my voice is not the voice you need to hear, and I’m neither an American nor resident in the United States so my influence over what’s happening is distant-to-nil. But some well-meaning people are posting memes on my Facebook to the effect of “let’s everybody calm down and stop calling each other names.” As if there were anything remotely resembling equality or balance in the situation.
Here is what’s going on, people. Some people are angry and yes, some of them are probably making a bit of a mess. The reason why they’re angry is because the people tasked with protecting them (as members of society) from harm and exploitation are killing them without provocation because of their skin colour. That is only happening on one side. There have been no cases of black police officers killing unarmed white youths.
You do not get to tell people to stop expressing their anger about their families being killed by agents of the Government for no reason. You just don’t.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The kind of religion I’m against

I am an atheist from a Christian family. Quite a few of my Facebook friends are people I knew from church back in the day, and most of them are still Christians if not necessarily still at that church. So quite often I get religious memes across my feed, and there will sometimes be religious conversation around the dinner-table when I visit my family. It seems to me that I exercise quite a noble degree of restraint on these occasions, continually refraining from passing critical comment, saying nothing in front of the children. But of course everybody feels that they respond better to annoyances than they really do, and that they themselves are less annoying than they really are.
This isn’t going to be about why I don’t believe in God. Nor is it going to be anywhere near all my thoughts on religion. I just want to stake out my position on the question: to what degree should religion be tolerated, and to what degree should it be opposed? Is it like race or gender, so that opposition to a belief different from one’s own is bigotry? Is it like politics, so that the rights and wrongs depend partly on what you want and what you stand for? Or is it like science, so that there is a “truth of the matter” and other positions are factually false? And can everyone please at least pick one of those and stick with it, rather than being like “My religion is like my race and you’re a bigot if you dispute it, but other people’s religions are like their politics and I hereby declare my opposition to them because I don’t want them to be true”?
I’ve been drafting this post on and off for a while now. I started it when Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post on the four major goals of the atheist movement, of which she endorses three, the exception being “working toward a world without religion”. I agree with most of what she says, but somehow the whole thing doesn’t quite sit comfortably in my head. (By contrast I agree completely with what she said recently about Sam Harris, though admittedly because it’s just what I already thought.) Of all things, what’s drawn me back to it is that, in the small choir I sing in, we’re now practising a setting of Thomas Hardy’s 1915 poem The Oxen for the upcoming Christmas concert. But I’ll get to that.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Why couldn’t we have had a movie about Lúthien?

I gather the Tolkien family have put their foot down and said “no” to any more Middle-Earth movies after The Hobbit is completed. I’m disappointed, but only mildly. The days are now past when any attempt to depict high fantasy on screen was bound to fail ignominiously. I don’t begrudge the Tolkiens their decision – apparently their father’s fame has been the bane of their privacy for half a century, not to mention that the movie companies have been very stingy about passing any of their profits on to his estate. And I understand completely why Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop went for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit first. But I think Tolkien himself was a bit embarrassed by The Hobbit. It wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the mythos at all – he just helped himself to the name of a character (Elrond) and a place (the lost city of Gondolin) to give it a bit of atmosphere, and then filled out the connections over the twelve years it took to write The Lord of the Rings. (Which then took six more years to publish. And George R. R. Martin fans complain about waiting five for A Dance with Dragons.)
Those two were the only Middle-Earth books J. R. R. Tolkien got published in his lifetime. All right, those and a small collection of verse under the title The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. His son Christopher is still, I think, collecting and transcribing the giant mass of manuscripts he left when he died, some of them going right back to his time in the trenches of World War I. The first published was The Silmarillion, a collection of the whole mythos condensed down to one chapter per story, which many people understandably find tough going. Jackson has had to stretch and pad out The Hobbit to make three movies of it; The Silmarillion would fill at least a dozen.
Of all Jackson’s padding, the single element that has raised the most fan complaints so far is the most necessary one: the invention of the female elf-ranger Tauriel among Thranduil’s people in Mirkwood. I have a sneaking suspicion Jackson is going to kill her off in the third movie. The Hobbit was a boys’ adventure story, and like many boys’ adventure stories of the time it had no female characters. The Lord of the Rings has seven named female characters, eight if you count Shelob the spider. Two, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Ioreth of Minas Tirith, are old-lady stereotypes. One is Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t show up until Sam Gamgee needs a happy ending. The remaining four are all idealized models of femininity – Goldberry, Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, and Éowyn of Rohan. Goldberry, like Tom Bombadil her husband, appears only in a disconnected episode near the beginning; her character is too sketchily drawn to tell us much about her author’s values. Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn each warrant further investigation.

Monday, 27 October 2014

And so it begins

Just over a month since the election, and National are making the labour laws on things like tea-breaks more “flexible”. This doesn’t mean the workers will be able to flex them, obviously. Only the employer. Oh, but it’s all right, they can only take your tea-break away if you agree to it. No coercion there. After all, it’s not like they control your weekly wage or can hold the veiled threat of dismissal over your head or anything, is it?
I can see how they’ll argue it from here. It’ll be “Let the market sort it out” – the idea that if you don’t like the conditions your employer offers you can go find another job somewhere else. It’s Economics 101. And, like Economics 101, it ignores the fact that labour supply is negatively elastic. People work more hours when their pay is low, so they can be sure they’ve got enough cash to cover their needs; they take time off when it’s high and they can afford it. That means the employer gets more work out of them by offering less in exchange for it, which means that the law of supply and demand will always push wages and conditions straight down to the bottom. I’ve argued this before, more than once. It is something that those who run this country, and those who vote for them, urgently need to understand.
What’s the alternative? For now, I’ll settle for keeping the government-mandated regulations we have, or used to have, on what wages and conditions are acceptable. In the long term, however, the problem is that while “flexible” very easily (as here) becomes a weasel word for “exploitative”, it does refer to something real as well. Different workplaces operate under different constraints. No one size fits all. So if the market won’t fix the problem, what will? Dare I suggest democracy might? I don’t mean democracy via parliament, I mean direct democracy. I mean workers owning equal shares in the company, setting company policy, voting executives in and out.
Yes, if you are the kind of person to whom a company is something you own rather than something that tells you what to do, this would be a bit of a shock to the system. By all means argue against the idea. But let’s be clear: what you stand to lose is neither more nor less nor other than your personal power over a bunch of other people’s lives. If you think that makes you sound like the bad guy, you might want to think very carefully about that. Don’t come complaining to me. You hold your employees’ well-being, present and future, in the palm of your hand. You don’t want that? Give it back to them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The “context” doesn’t always make it better

When Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post about being an atheist but not working against religion, I started drafting a reply. But that was three weeks ago, and other things have taken up my attention in the meantime. Then Sam Harris posted this complaint about having his words (from The End of Faith) taken out of context in an image meme. And he provided what he considered to be the necessary context. The thing is, the context doesn’t actually make him look much better. I do think that religion in general is something that should be opposed, and some day I’ll get around to explaining why. But it is much more important that Sam Harris’s kind of atheism be opposed. I’ll give you the full passage, with the offending sentence in bold. Content note: violence, casual reference to torture, fear tactics targeting a non-Western religion.
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

Note on the above:
We do not have to bring the membership of al-Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Centre are beyond our help – and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of al-Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith, cited by the author in On the Mechanics of Defamation
I hadn’t read The End of Faith before. Otago University’s copy is housed in a special collection of books on religious topics which for historical reasons is outside the campus and bothersome to get to. If I had read this passage before now, I would have held Harris in much lower esteem than I did up until he blogged it. Honestly, I’m mystified as to what part of the “context” he provides is supposed to make it any better to suggest it might ever be OK to kill people for their beliefs. Granted that a person’s beliefs motivate their action to an extent that nothing else does; still, belief in turn is contingent upon circumstances, as the gratuitously horrifying analogy Harris himself opens with should have demonstrated (what would have been wrong with Steven Pinker’s illustration of the same point, “Your car is being towed”?). One way belief can change is through rational conversation, albeit usually some time after the fact, but I can think of no strategy better designed to close the doors on rational conversation than to suggest you might be justified in killing your interlocutor for their beliefs. A more common reason for belief to change is that the new belief makes better sense of the believer’s life experience than the old one, but if the old one is “Westerners are evil and must be destroyed”, then a pronouncement like Harris’s is only going to confirm it.
There was a time when it was generally accepted that it was reasonable to kill someone for their beliefs. Then people changed their minds about that, and there’s a reason why that change of mind was called “the Enlightenment”. Yes, I know that Europeans used the gains they enjoyed from killing each other less to consolidate their power and go and harass the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Enlightenment sceptics didn’t go around killing Christians. Or suggesting killing Christians. Or saying it would be ethical to kill Christians if they couldn’t capture them. Considering what Catholics and Protestants as groups at that time earnestly believed they needed to do to sceptics, as well as to “witches” and each other, by Harris’s standards the sceptics’ conduct was needlessly and indeed foolhardily restrained. Does Harris – does anyone – think civilization would have been better advanced if they’d taken up arms?
Harris might answer that those are pragmatic considerations, bearing on the wisdom of saying that it’s ethical to kill some people for their beliefs rather than on whether it’s true. Harris and I have different views of what constitutes the ethical, of course. I agree with him that the basic measure of goodness is subjective well-being. And my view on subjective consciousness allows at least the theoretical possibility of aggregating and comparing well-being across multiple subjects (Harris’s view, that consciousness is irreducibly and unfathomably mysterious, would rule this out). But ethics is not just about what circumstances would, in theory, be best, if only they could happen. It’s about what actions on our part will bring about the best result. For this purpose there is no getting around the fact that you can’t measure well-being in practice. You have to factor your uncertainty, and other people’s uncertainty about you, into your calculations. In the end it works out to maximizing trust and minimizing fear. If someone is actively trying to kill you or other innocent people, killing them might in many tragic cases be the best you can do; but attacking first creates fear, not trust, and is therefore unethical. I can’t quite believe that actually needed saying.