Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Journalists - what are they for, exactly?

Things journalists should learn on day one:

1. 'I won't answer a hypothetical question' entails that I won't then say what I will do if I am elected. Absurd.
2. A handful of anecdotes makes good copy but is not good evidence (e.g. stories about 'benefit scroungers', immigrants, etc.)
3. Smearing/labeling folk (e.g. 'Champagne socialist!', 'Politics of Envy!', 'Hypocrite', 'Fascist!') usually does nothing to discredit the views expressed.
4. Being impartial is not the same as being neutral. E.g. getting a scientist vs. a climate change denier on your programme is neutral, but not impartial.

I suspect most journalists are aware of e.g. 2 & 3 but many carry on regardless at The Sun and The Daily Mail. Which raises the question: what are journalists for, exactly? What are they paid to do, exactly?

I don't like the label 'journalist'. What some 'journalists' do (e.g. hacks at The Sun and the Daily Mail) and what others do (genuinely investigative, insightful, and educative stuff) are activities with almost entirely opposite aims.

It's like lumping doctors and serial killers together under a single common noun.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


The recipe for generating a successful new religion or conspiracy theory usually involves two key components:

1. identify supposed 'mysteries' that an appeal to your preferred unseen intelligence (MIB, God, gremlins, fairies, the CIA) operating behind the scene easily solves (e.g. why the twin towers came down like that, how life began, why you can't find your keys).

2. be ingenious at explaining stuff away. Any apparent evidence against your theory can always be accounted for given some ingenuity , e.g. if you believe in young earth creationism, cook up explanations for the fossil record, etc.; if you believe in a good, loving god, cook up explanations for all the horrendous suffering we see in nature; if you believe the royal family are alien shape-shifters, cook up explanations for why they're never spotted in alien form, how they could possibly have got here, infiltrated the royal blood line, etc. Consistency with the available evidence can always, by such means, be achieved.

So, you can now (often correctly!) declare that:

(i) your new religion or conspiracy theory explains, by appeal to hidden agency, what orthodox theories do not or cannot, and

(ii) your new belief system is also consistent with the evidence!

If you think your belief system is reasonable because it ticks boxes (i) and (ii), I suggest you think again. Many utterly ludicrous belief systems also tick both boxes. That can't be the reason your belief system is reasonable, if indeed it is...

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Left's Antisemitism Problem and Their Focus on Israel

I have recently been engaged in a very interesting discussion on Facebook about the Left’s supposed antisemitism and Israel problem. It’s widely supposed Labour has a major antisemitism problem that needs to be dealt with. Of course, there is antisemitism everywhere, but is there significantly more among Leftists? That’s the suggestion.

I don’t see that the evidence supports the view that Labour has a major antisemitism problem. Labour has around half a million members. I noted that:

(i) As of last summer, after various accusations were made in the Press and social media examples had been cited, a total of around 20 suspensions of Party members had been made. Out of half a million members.
(ii) Press reports of alleged examples of Leftist antisemitism are anecdotal evidence – notoriously poor evidence. Finding 20, 50, 200, or even 2,000 examples of antisemitism in Labour would not establish that Labour had a particular problem with antisemitism. I would add that many of the alleged examples cited in the press in any case look pretty suspect.
(iii) The Chakrabarti inquiry looked into the accusations of significant antisemitism in Labour and found no significant problem. Chakrabarti is a woman who was very widely respected, though after her report came out many centrists accused her of corruption.
(iv) Channel 4 did an undercover investigation of Momentum, looking for dirt, including antisemitism. They found none.
(v) A recent study into antisemitism by the Jewish Research Policy found that levels of antisemitism were no higher among the left or far left than amongst the general population.
So, I concluded, the evidence for Labour having a major antisemitism problem is just not there.

This piece continues at Conatus news here.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Corbyn vs Virgin and Traingate - the full CCTV is finally released!

Remember traingate: Corbyn claimed he was on a 'ram-packed' Virgin train, and Branson released CCTV stills from that train showed loads of empty seats? Virgin were asked for the full CCTV recordings under FIA rules. They have now, finally, revealed the CCTV from which the stills fed to the Press by Branson were taken [correction: I am told that the CCTV from which that still of the supposedly empty seats was taken was available to the BBC at the time, but it seems they never bothered to check the tape]. The CCTV originals confirm not that Corbyn lied but rather that Branson presented highly misleading images from the CCTV to the media.

Remember the days and days of outrage in the MSM that followed traingate....including on BBC Newsnight?

I imagine this news - that a billionaire deliberately misled the mainstream British media in order to smear a political leader threatening his financial interests - will be met with crickets.

There may also a moral to be drawn here about 'fake news'. I googled 'traingate' just now and I found ONLY The Canary, Skwawkbox, RT, and other sources endlessly denounced by centrists as 'fake news' are covering this story. The BBC, on the other hand, were successfully played by Branson, as were the rest of the MSM (most of it quite willingly of course).

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Continental vs Analytic Philosophy - powerpoint slides

Richard Dawkins recently tweeted: 'Philosophers happily speak of “continental philosophy.” What science department would appoint a professor to teach “continental chemistry”?' Is Dawkins suggesting Continental philosophy is bunkum? Well, some of it is. Indeed, the term was actually introduced by Ryle and other analytic philosophers as a dismissive label: Continental philosophy = not what we do/bullshit. But of course not all 'Continental' philosophy, as that term is used now, is BS.  It's also worth noting that, whatever 'Continental' means re philosophy, we are not talking geographical location.

I am no Continental philosopher. But here are some slides I made to explain the difference as I understand it, in case they are of interest.

Friday, August 18, 2017

What is, and isn't, Islamophobic/anti-semitic?

There's currently a great deal of talk about Islamophobia and anti-semitism in the UK press. You won't be surprised to hear me say I am very firmly against both forms of prejudice. However, I suspect many would consider me guilty of one or other.

I suspect many Muslims or Muslim-supporters would consider me Islamophobic because, say, I consider the religion of Islam one root cause of much contemporary terrorism. On the other hand, I don't doubt some Jews or Israeli-supporters would consider me anti-semitic because, say, I think the attacks on Gaza were disproportionate and unjustified, or because I am broadly sympathetic to non-violent methods of Palestinian resistance, such as their BDS campaign - Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

It may well be that I'm just mistaken about what is and isn't Islamophobic/anti-semitic, and I genuinely want to be guilty of neither, so I thought I would arrange various claims according to whether I consider them Islamophobic or not and anti-semitic or not, to get your feedback.

I DO consider the following claims Islamophobic:

All Muslims should be forcibly removed to Arab countries (e.g. from the U.S. or from Israel)
Muslims all want to take over the world (and place it under sharia)
The Muslims are secretly plotting to take over the world (and place it under sharia)
Muslims are cockroaches and rats
Muslims are a source of moral depravity
Muslims are bigots (homophobic, racist, sexist, etc.)

Why we are entitled to point a finger at Islam on oppression and bigotry

(This is reposted from CFI blogs, where it appeared 2015 - still relevant though)

In his recent post at the Daily Dot titled 'Atheism has a Richard Dawkins Problem', Ben Branstetter criticises Dawkins's targeting of Islam and the Quran as sources of bigotry and oppression.
Branstetter writes:

Dawkins seems to be targeting the treatment of women in many Islamic countries—which use religion to justify stoning rape victims and criminalize homosexuality. Dawkins is wrong, however, to target the Quran as the source of these atrocities: Atheists shouldn’t hold an entire religious community responsible for the actions of governmnents and fundamentalist state religions. Instead, Dawkins and his followers should attack the structures that allow for the systematic oppression of women and LGBT people.

Branstetter follows Steve Neumann in supposing that the root cause of such oppression is a delight in exercising power over others, which is by no means peculiar to religion:

Dawkins and his defenders are likely aware of the many atrocities committed in the name of Christianity—from the Crusades and the slaughter of Native Americans up to the bombing of abortion clinics. Likewise, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung slaughtered tens of millions without a whiff of religious influence.

The problem with this argument is that to point out that Y often happens without X does not establish that X is not a major cause of Y. Plenty of people get cancer without smoking, but nevertheless smoking is a major cause of cancer.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Should Corbyn one-sidedly condemn the violence of Venezuelan Government forces?

You don't like Corbyn and you want to discredit him and his leftist supporters by pointing out his even-handed condemnation of violence in Venezuela. And now Trump has condemned the violence on both sides in Charlottesville, despite it being clear that it's alt-rightists that are primarily responsible. So can you now legitimately draw a very damaging (for Corbyn) parallel between Trump and Corbyn? In this instance, aren't they as bad as each other?

Well, first off you would have to show that there is a major imbalance in the violence from either side in Venezuela (as there is in Charlottesville). Arguably there is (that UN report suggests as much), but still it is clear there is also much violence from the protestors whose actions have also caused deaths (some accidental, as in the eight who were electrocuted, but perhaps also some quite deliberate). But suppose you can show there is nevertheless such an imbalance in the number of deaths caused by either side? Is that enough to condemn Corbyn as being, in this instance, 'just like Trump'?

No. You are not even close.

If we should condemn much more forcefully or even exclusively those who cause the most deaths in such situations - that being a reason why Corbyn should one-sidedly condemn the Government side in Venezuela - then what about Israel/Palestine? Palestinian violence kills very few people compared to Israeli violence. Yet Israel's violence is widely thought justified, proportionate, and acceptable. Should Corbyn condemn only the Israeli violence, then?

Or is it the fact that the violence is coming from the much more powerful side - Government forces - that should lead us to condemn the violence of the Government much more forcefully, or even exclusively? But again, what about Israel vs violent Palestinian protestors. And the UK Government vs the IRA? It seems we should then condemn the Brits much more than the IRA, and the Israelis much more than the Palestinians.

Corbyn's position in all these disputes - UK forces vs IRA, Israel vs Palestinians, Venezuelan Gov. forces vs protestors - is, to my knowledge, to condemn the violence on both sides. To suggest Corbyn is a hypocrite for not one-sidedly condemning the Government violence in this case seems to me unjustified, and, frankly, dumb. He would be a hypocrite if he did condemn only one side in this case, given his previous form. Corbyn's long-standing position on such violent situations may not be to your liking - and you may argue that some other position would be better - but it is principled and it is consistent.

Trump's position, on the other hand, is neither principled nor consistent.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

'But it's the best explanation!' - how bullshit beliefs are justified

Folk who believe in fairies, or miracles, or alien visitation, are generally fond of an argument called ARGUMENT TO THE BEST EXPLANATION.
Here's an example of argument to the best explanation (or abduction, as it's sometimes known):
I see shoes poking out from under the curtain and the curtain twitching slightly above them. I can also hear breathing. I infer there's someone standing behind the curtain. Why? Because that's the best available explanation of what I observe. True enough, the twitching might be caused by the breeze from an open window and the shoes were just coincidentally placed in the same spot. But I reckon that's a bit less likely than that there's someone standing there (for what explains the breathing noise?)
Quite what makes an explanation the 'best' is controversial, but there's some agreement that the simpler and more elegant an explanation, the better. So, for example, I could explain that twitching curtain by supposing that there are three dwarves standing on top of each other behind the curtain, but that's a far more complex and less elegant explanation for what's oberved than that there's just a single person there.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Christian Legal Centre - and their bullshit claims of religious persecution

This (click for link) seems to me to be the right verdict. In fact the case looks very much like the Olive Jones case (Jones was also represented by the Christian Legal Centre). Here is something I previously wrote about that:

At the end of this conference on Religious Freedom and Equality (at which I presented a shorter version of this paper), some of the speakers, myself included, were invited to discuss the issue of religious freedom in a Q&A session organized at the Christian Legal Centre (CLC). On arriving, all those attending were given a double-sided sheet of paper which listed a string of cases in which Christians had, it seemed, been treated unfairly - investigated, suspended, sacked, prevented from fostering, and so on - because they had dared to express their Christian views. To get an impression of the reliability of these anecdotes, I picked one at random and looked it up online while the CLC’s representative was still introducing the event. The CLC’s handout said:

Peripatetic teacher Olive Jones – dismissed for offering prayer to family.