Tuesday, 8 December 2015

December 9: V-S Day

     I think December 9 is a day we should celebrate with every bit as much solemnity and pride as November 11. On this day in 1979, a United Nations commission declared smallpox extinct. The official endorsement from the World Health Organization wouldn't come for another five months, but neither did the Treaty of Versaille that formalized the end of World War One was almost a whole year after the Armistice, but we celebrate when the shooting stopped, not when the diplomats shook on it.
     Of course, it's a little harder to be clear when the war on smallpox was really won. The last patient was diagnosed in 1977 (he survived), and it's by no means certain that the last wild specimens of the virus were in him; possibly some unidentified infected person was hit by a bus in 1978 or even 1987 and took the last ones with her. We only know we won because enough time went by without any new infections to give us some confidence that it's over. There were no parades or fireworks.
     But even so, it was a truly stunning accomplishment. I mean, we've driven countless species extinct before, but mostly unintentionally and to our detriment. Smallpox was a vicious virus whose only role in the ecosystem, so far as anybody can tell, was to hitch a ride from human to human, killing lots of us in the process. The defeat of smallpox was one of the best things that has ever happened for our species.

     And defeating it took enormous organization, resourcefulness, skill and courage. The last person to be infected? He was a hospital cook who worked with the WHO team working to eradicate smallpox. And the last person to die of smallpox was a medical photographer. So fighting diseases is not without its risks.
     Yet it wasn't only the medical professionals going out and vaccinating people who won this war. There wasn't always enough vaccine to go around, and so it had to be applied strategically. That meant getting good intelligence on where the virus was. New cases anywhere in the world were reported quickly to the team, who would isolate the patient and vaccinate all her contacts. The last natural infection of the deadliest strain (the hospital cook got a somewhat less deadly but still dangerous version) was reported to the authorities by an 8 year old girl, so there were important contributions made by everyone. And that includes everyone who received a vaccination (which can be a scary thing, especially for children).

     So we should all be grateful and celebrate this anniversary, but not just because ending smallpox was a good thing. Deadly infectious diseases like smallpox are kind of like war in that most of us, living in the developed world, haven't directly experienced one, and can scarcely imagine the epidemics of even the recent past. Influenza killed more people in the years of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versaille than the four years of war they ended. Lest we forget.
     We should remember these things so we don't repeat them. When we debate whether or not to get vaccinated against the diseases we're still fighting, we should remember what we're up against, and bravely, proudly, patriotically roll up our sleeve and take that shot. Even if you believe that vaccines can cause autism (they really don't), even if you're afraid of all the (very rare) complications from vaccines, remember that you live free of smallpox because of people who were willing to be vaccinated despite their fear of these strange foreign doctors and their needles. And generations yet unborn may have reason to be grateful to us for a life free of polio, measles, the Guinea worm and other pestilences we might yet defeat.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Fear and Anger

     I sat down to try to write something about the terrorism at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. I wanted to talk about how "terrorism" isn't (or shouldn't be seen as) violence-by-Muslims, but that it's a specific kind of violence, strategically aimed more at provoking a terrified response than at inflicting decisive damage. Terrorism is about the emotional reaction to the violence more than the violence itself, and violence used to intimidate people to change their behaviour (such as deterring them from attending health care services) clearly fits the bill.
     But I also wanted to talk about how maybe the word "terrorism" is itself a bit misleading, because the emotional overreaction that it provokes isn't always purely a terrified one. A natural reaction to fear is anger, and displays of escalating rage are a very common defence: if I can make you more afraid of me than I am of you, maybe you'll leave me alone. I like to call this phenomenon "badass bravado", and you see it all over the place, from politicians boasting about how they're going to get "tough on" criminals or terrorists or foreigners, to Second Amendment crazies fantasizing about how would-be government despots quiver in fear from their mighty home arsenals of small arms. 
      What's especially dangerous about this bravado is that, in believing that one is driven by anger and not fear, one can think that one is immune to the strategy of terrorism. "They want us to be afraid, but I'm not afraid. I'm angry, and I'm gonna kick their asses, not cower in fear!" Yet the objective, at least in the case of DAESh's use of terrorism, is to provoke exactly this kind of response. To be fair, there certainly are uses of terrorism that are intended to intimidate, as well, as the Planned Parenthood example illustrates. But in all cases, terrorism is aimed at getting you to react emotionally instead of rationally.
     There are very good evolutionary reasons for why we have emotions that make us stupid. In a suddenly dangerous situation, being able to react quickly without stopping to ponder if maybe there's a better way to avoid the charging angry bear is important: fight or flight, but whichever you choose it's better if you don't linger over the decision.
     But anger in particular is meant to make us irrational, especially in the badass bravado scenario. We have a strong need not to appear weak before our rivals or enemies, to pose a credible deterrent to any slight or insult they might offer. It wouldn't be, in the immediate situation, rational to escalate to a costly retaliation when the cost of just turning the other cheek is so low, but little insults add up, and in the long run it can be costly to be seen as willing to tolerate little wrongs. And so, being seen as easily angered to irrationally costly vengeance is often worth it. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made the rationally calculated choice to assure each other not just that they would be able to retaliate to any nuclear attack, but unable to stop themselves from retaliating. Thus was WWIII deterred: by the awareness on both sides that the other side would become irrationally dangerous if provoked.

     So this is what I was trying to organize into yet another blog post about violence, when yesterday I heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino and threw up my hands in frustration. And anger. So much anger. And maybe a bit of fear, too, but I'll get to that.
     See, the thing that sends me into a seething ultraviolet-hot fury is not the shooters. I'm mad at them, a bit, of course, but they're dead and unworthy of further attention except as data points in trying to understand and prevent future incidents. No, what enrages me is when the Gun Lobby people start blaming the victims, saying that if only they'd been armed, they could have defended themselves and saved lives. 
     That is just plain offensive, but it's something the Gun Lobby does a lot, and if you apply the tiniest fraction of the paranoid creativity that goes into dreaming up false flag explanations for Sandy Hook or ... or... jeez, I can't even remember which of the many other shootings they've tried to claim was a hoax as a pretext to confiscate guns. If you consider the motives of the Gun Lobby with the slightest hint of the skepticism they have for Teh Gubmint and the "liberal" media, it might occur to you that an industry that makes all of its money from the sale of guns and ammo might not be completely free of ulterior motives in their enthusiastic promotion of guns as the solution to gun violence.
     I am reminded of the obscene hypocrisy of tobacco company executives asserting before Congress that they believed tobacco was not addictive, and spending vast sums to challenge the claim that maybe cigarettes weren't very good for you. No, it's not the mere fact that they were lying that was obscene. It's that the lie was so transparently a self-serving lie, because at the very same time they were claiming there was no health risk from smoking, they were also insisting that their advertising wasn't aimed at children or indeed at convincing anyone other than established smokers to switch to their brand. Really? If you believe tobacco is harmless and non-addictive, then what kind of an incompetent moron are you not to be trying to encourage everyone to try your wonderful product?
     The Gun Lobby argument is not quite as inherently self-refuting, but it's close. It's certainly more profoundly immoral, though, because at least with tobacco, dying of emphysema was at worst an unfortunate side-effect of tobacco use that had to be downplayed. With guns, mass-shootings and the fear they inspire actually create more profits for gun manufacturers, because terrified people rush out to buy guns to defend themselves against other terrified people with guns, or to stockpile them before a reactionary government bans them. In other words, it's actually in the Gun Lobby's interests for there to be fairly regular mass shootings.

     So if I'm angry, what's the fear behind it? Well, apart from just being morally outraged that people are dying unnecessarily to keep the money rolling in for the gun industry, there's another pretty terrifying aspect to their rhetoric. A common variation on their blaming-the-unarmed-victim argument is the claim that Hitler disarmed the Jews, as if they could have defended themselves effectively against the state if only they'd had guns. And this offends and frightens me, because the lesson of the Holocaust was not "Don't be like the Jews"; it was "Don't be like the Nazis". There is a guy running for President of the United States, a prime example of badass bravado, who has openly advocated making Muslims wear badges. 
     Sure, I'm not a Muslim. Heck, I don't even live in the U.S. Why should I be afraid?

Monday, 16 November 2015

On Refugees and Security

     So, I'm hearing from people who are concerned about our new federal government's plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. They say they want to help, of course, but they're worried that maybe some terrorists might sneak in disguised as refugees, so they want there to be very careful, very thorough screening.
     This sounds very reasonable, and it is so long as the screening is cost-effective. But how much screening is cost-effective? I'm going to suggest, with the following analogy, that the answer is not very much.

      Imagine you are relaxing in a hot tub, and a child proposes to drop a piece of ice in there with you to watch it melt. Sure, that'll cool down the water a bit, and you might prefer to keep it hotter, but you're willing to endure the modest temperature change which you probably won't even notice, since it'll make the child happy and you want to encourage her to do harmless little experiments like this anyway.
     But wait. Where did she get this block of ice, you ask? And she explains that she broke it from the frozen surface of a puddle in the front yard.
     Eewwww! That puddle in the front yard? It's all muddy and gross, and almost certainly full of germs and bacteria and pesticides and everything else! You don't want that in the hot tub with you!

     Now stop and think for a moment. What kind of germs and bacteria and unwanted chemicals are already in the hot tub with you? If you're at all realistic, you'll know that water you're soaking in is far from sterile. It's teeming with nastiness, kept in check of course by the high temperature and whatever chemicals you might use in your hot tub to keep microbe populations down. And while there might well be dog poop and other residues in the little piece of ice, it's certainly not worse than what's already in the tub, and your filter and chemicals can handle it in any event. Moreover, since the skin of ice came from the top of the puddle, it probably doesn't have any of the nasty sediments at the bottom of the puddle; odds are, it's actually purer water than what you're already sitting in.

     So this is analogous to the situation with Syrian refugees. We warm-hearted Canadians might be willing to sacrifice a little short-term comfort to help the needy, just as we'd be willing to let the water in the hot tub get just a little cooler as the ice melts. But we seem to be irrationally terrified that there might be dangerous people who want to hurt us among those we let in.
    Of course there's a possibility that some terrorists might sneak in along with refugees. But we need to consider whether that actually has any real impact on our safety, and I want to argue that it doesn't really. See, Canada is a nation of some 36 million people, and we have our share of dangerous people right here. We have serial killers and criminal gangs and angry young men with guns, and even a few would-be jihadists, just like any other country. Just like your hot tub is already full of pathogens and other icky stuff. And just like your hot tub has a system of filters and chemicals in place to deal with a certain amount of infectious goo, so too does our country have a robust system of law enforcement and security, to deal with the dangerous people who already live here.
     Moreover, just like the ice from the puddle is already quite a bit purer than the rest of the puddle, refugees are generally people who are fleeing the fighting; most of those DAESh thugs are too busy fighting to hang onto the territory they seized to be able to spare a lot of people to carry out terrorist operations elsewhere. They might send a few, but almost certainly not enough to make the 25,000 refugees statistically more dangerous to Canada than any other random bunch of 25,000 Canadians.

     There is a difference, of course. Unlike the pollutants in a mud puddle, DAESh might make deliberate, conscious attempts to exploit any perceived security lapses in our refugee process. And in fact, I actually expect them to do so. I don't expect them to pose any statistically significant danger, but I am confident they'll try to carry out some attack or other, and they'll likely go out of their way to let us know how they got into the country, because after all, their objective is to make us in the West hate and fear all Muslims, forcing all Muslims to throw their lot in with DAESh. And that, of course, is another reason why we should welcome Syrian refugees with open arms: because doing so will foil DAESh's plans.

     I'm not going to say that welcoming refugees will keep us safe. We're already in danger, and we always have been, and so keeping refugees out won't make us any safer. And DAESh really doesn't want us to mess up their narrative of evil infidels persecuting pious Muslims, so yeah, there's actually a pretty good chance they will try to attack us, especially if we do take in more refugees. But here's the thing: We're tougher than they are.
     I don't mean we can hit them harder than they can hit us, although of course we can; modern nation states like Canada with conventionally trained and equipped militaries are infinitely more powerful than a bunch of religious fanatics with Kalashnikovs. I mean we can survive anything they throw at us, and shrug. If they kill a hundred of us, or a thousand of us, we'll be upset and sad and angry, but you know what? So will all the people they're trying to recruit to their side.

     We're going to suffer more tragedies. Be ready for it, but don't think you can prevent it by giving in to hate and fear. Courage and compassion are how we will win.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sacrifices for Freedom

     My sister just forwarded me this link alerting me that today is "Love Your Lawyer Day", probably because she found out I'm a lawyer. I'm gratified, I suppose, but reading through the article I'm also a little disappointed that the rationale for the day seems to be entirely a reaction to cruel lawyer jokes and an awareness that lawyers have feelings too. And, as it also happens to be early November and everyone is wearing red poppies and waxing poetic about how much we owe our veterans, the contrast is a bit troubling.
     I hasten to stress that I am grateful for the courage and sacrifice of our veterans, and very much aware of how vitally important it is that they are willing and able to fight in defense of our civilization. But I am troubled by the apparently unlimited scope of the platitudes of gratitude we express, especially around November 11, in which people seem quite unrestrained in thanking men with guns for everything we have. For example, there is the story about VFW's Teacher of the Year Martha Cothren and the poignant lesson she taught her students about what earned them the right to sit in their desks, by having a group of veterans troop into the classroom, each carrying a desk.
     And certainly there have been instances where the willingness of soldiers to put themselves in harm's way has played a direct and visible role in letting children attend school. Consider, for example, when President Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to protect nine black students as they attended Little Rock Central High School, which had previously been reserved only for white children.
     But also consider that before Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, that very same unit had been sent by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent those same students from entering the building. The point here is that men with guns can be an instrument of oppression as well as defense against it. Indeed, I shouldn't need to mention that the primary use of violence throughout history has been in service of one form of oppression or another; those who resolve their disputes by reasoned negotiation and moral persuasion generally have little need for weapons, and then only because there are other people out there who do favour violence as their strategy.

     So it is not simply the fact that someone wears a uniform, carries a gun and follows orders that makes him or her a champion of freedom. It's that the gun is carried in service of freedom, or more to the point, in service of the form of government and the rule of law and the principles that support that freedom. And while the contribution of armed forced to protecting that freedom is very important, it is not the only contribution There are others who serve to protect our freedom as well, albeit in less dramatic and less appreciated ways.
     Remember that Eisenhower did not simply decide to send in troops because he wanted to see Arkansas schools desegregated as a matter of might-makes-right. This was not just a clash between the policies of the President and the Governor. It was a matter of law: a Federal Court had ruled that racially segregated school systems violated the Constitution. And that court had not simply decided that they thought it would be nice if children of all colours could attend schools together; it had been persuaded by legal arguments raised by lawyers.
     Now, it's true, of course, that there were lawyers on the other side, arguing that separate-but-equal segregated schools were constitutionally sound and that it was entirely appropriate that black students should not be allowed to set foot in all-white schools. But that does not mean that those lawyers were enemies of freedom. On the contrary, they played a fundamentally important role in protecting it. Our legal system is adversarial: the court must hear the very best arguments available for both sides of a claim, so that we can have confidence that the decisions they make are as fair and just as humanly possible. And that means that we need lawyers to be the bad guys as well as the good guys, in particular because in most cases that actually make it all the way to trial, there's actually an open question as to which is which.
     This means that there will always be lawyers arguing the very opposite of what you want to hear them saying, assuming you ever take sides on any issue. And this makes it hard to avoid coming to the opinion that lawyers are slimy dishonest shysters who will argue anything for anyone, so long as they get paid.
     But consider for a moment what it is we want from a soldier: we want them to be well-trained and highly disciplined, and in particular we want them to be able to promptly follow lawful orders even when those lawful orders require them to do something they might personally find distasteful. Like, for instance, shooting someone dead, or  blowing up a bunker with people inside it. These things may be tactically necessary, and in the big picture they may well be the least of all evils, but in the immediate situation, there's no getting around the fact that killing people is ugly, and something all decent people have a natural resistance to.
     We consider soldiers heroes for their ability to bravely do what we would consider abhorrent, and rightly so on both counts: they are heroes, and it is still abhorrent. So why do we feel comfortable condemning the lawyer who defends a pedophile, or who argues that black kids shouldn't be allowed to go to white schools? Why do we vilify lawyers with lawyer jokes?

     Sure, it's not the same as getting shot at. But neither is it the same as shooting at people. And just as soldiers willingly bear the risk of being shot, so too do lawyers knowingly enter a career and make arguments they know will make them unpopular.
     So I'm not complaining. I see it as an inevitable part of the process, of what lawyers do, that they will be regarded with suspicion and even contempt. The fact that many earn respectable salaries (and much more than what members of the armed forces typically earn) is probably more than enough to make up for this. I don't think we need a Love Your Lawyer Day, nice as the intention behind it is.
     But I do think we need to balance the hyperbole of thanks for veterans with a recognition that it's not just their willingness to fight that keeps us free, because I think the militaristic rhetoric is ultimately dangerous. The most egregious example I can think of is how some American gun proponents talk about the 2nd Amendment as the one that makes all the others possible, which is of course absolutely backwards, as I've argued before. More concretely, there is a strain of law-and-order ideology in which the police are very quick to use force to silence any perceived challenge to their authority, whether it be slamming a high school student to the floor for refusing to obey a command or arresting a driver for declining to put out her cigarette in her own car, or any of countless other examples. But these acts are not law; they are force.

     It is not force, then, but the law that keeps us free. Those who take up arms to meet force with force in service of law deserve our thanks, but so do lawyers, who work to apply and improve the law. But neither can do it alone: without our collective commitment to resolve our disputes in accordance with principles of civility and respect, their sacrifices would be for nothing.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

On "Allowing" Disrespect

     A quote from the Reverend Billy Graham has come across my news feed a couple of times now, and so I think it's time to deconstruct it, because I think it's wrong and misleading. Rev. Graham says:

A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.

     Why would I take issue with this? Obviously I think children ought to respect their parents, and obviously I agree that it's a good thing for children to have respect for other people, as well. These are certainly desirable things. But often when we read or hear something that seems to be about uncontroversial values we all share, we lapse into a kind of warm glowy agreement with it, and don't look closely enough to notice that what it's actually saying is, well, wrong.
      There are, after all, children who are born to disreputable and irresponsible parents, who still somehow manage to grow up into decent and respectful human beings despite (and sometimes as a reaction to) their awful role models.  It is entirely conceivable that such a child might not respect her parents at all, having been disappointed in them too many times to extend them the benefit of the doubt, and yet still have true respect for others. So the claim is empirically false, but it goes deeper than just the occasional exception-that-proves-the-rule.

      The real problem I have with this claim is that that's just not how respect works. Respect is not a behaviour but an attitude, a recognition that other people exist, that they have their own perspectives which we are not well-situated to judge, that they have their own concerns and interests, and most of all that they matter. Once one has that basic element of respect, all sorts of respectful behaviours just naturally emerge from it. When we respect each other, we will defer to each other's preferences and expertise, or at least take them into account. We will choose our words politely, so as to avoid giving offense, because respect means that a person's preference not to be offended matters to us.
     Now, what does it mean, then, to "allow" a child to be disrespectful to his parents? From my perspective, this is an almost meaningless question; how can you allow someone to have an attitude or belief about your inherent worth as a human being? Indeed, the very question is itself disrespectful, insofar as it disrespects the basic sovereignty of the child's own mind.
     What one can allow (or disallow) is behaviour, and yes, it's possible to demand politeness and deference, and to punish their absence. And by all means, as parents we certainly ought to attempt to teach our children how to behave politely, towards their parents as well as towards anyone else. A respectful attitude can emerge from this, as we model the practice of considering others. But if we are focused on demanding that our children show us polite deference as their parents, we might well end up modelling an authoritarian self-centeredness that undermines the foundations of true respect.

     And so I would say that, as superficially profound as the Rev. Graham's quote sounds, it's actually backwards. Teach your children what respect is, not by demanding it from them, but by modelling it for them. Demonstrate respect by showing it to everyone.
     You cannot make your children, or anyone else, respect you. What you can and should do is strive always to be worthy of that respect; whether you get it or not is not up to you. And if your children live by the same principle, you'll have done your job well.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Road Gets Steeper: On the Alleged Unfairness of Progressive Income Tax

     I've been having a lengthy and frustrating argument with a friend who seems to hold the position that progressive income tax is unfair. He seems to think it is punitive to impose a higher tax rate on someone just because they happen to earn more than someone else. And he's not alone in using words like "punitive"; lots of people are wrong along with him.

     Simply put, progressive income tax is where the marginal tax rate rises as income rises; as your income rises, you are taxed a progressively higher percentage. Simple enough, and simpler still if you just ignore the word "marginal", which is a common mistake, but turns an otherwise sensible policy into a horrifying injustice.
     Consider: You earn 10,000 quatloos, and are in the 10% tax bracket, so you pay 1000 quatloos in tax. But next year, you earn 10,100 quatloos, and that puts you into the 15% bracket, so perversely you end up paying 1515 quatloos, effectively losing money by earning more. That definitely would be punitive, because there's an actual disincentive to earn the extra quatloo.
     That's how many people think progressive income tax works, so they naturally find it objectionable. But that's what you get for ignoring the word "marginal". The way progressive taxation really works is that you only pay the higher rate on the income above what you earned in the lower bracket. So you pay 10% on the first 10,000 quatloos, and then when you earn an additional ("marginal", for the margin or gap between what you earned and the previous bracket) 100 quatloos, you pay 15% on the additional income, or 15 quatloos. So your total tax bill is now 1015 quatloos, not 1515. There is no point at which earning an extra quatloo costs you more than one quatloo in taxes; earning an extra quatloo always means taking home more money. Hence, it's not actually punitive; you're never actually worse off for having earned more, at least so far as taxes are concerned.

     I think my friend understands this much, but he still insists that it's unfair to make the rich pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. I must confess I've really been having a hard time understanding this reasoning. It might come from an inappropriate emphasis on the word "equal", which doesn't necessarily mean "fair". After all, a straight head tax of $1000 per person per year would be equal in dollar terms, but impossibly burdensome on the poorest, and imperceptibly so on the richest. Obviously fairness does not demand arithmetic equality; why should we assume it would require equal percentage rates?
     But that seems to be the core of the objection: progressive income tax treats the rich and the poor differently. And I want to argue that it doesn't, at least, not in a discriminatory way.
     Think of it this way. You are moving along a road. Every meter you travel horizontally is a dollar in your pocket. Every vertical meter you ascend is a dollar in taxes. At first, the road is level, or even slopes gently downward (if you're receiving social assistance from the government, perhaps). But as you move farther along, it gradually begins to slope upward. After a hundred kilometers or so, you're heading up quite a noticeable grade, and in another thousand kilometres, it gets steeper yet. But it never becomes quite vertical; it's always possible to travel another meter horizontally, although you may need to climb more than a meter vertically to do so.
     Now, as you strain your way up the steepest part of the slope, you may cast a longing glance backwards at those lucky people ambling easily along the gentler rise behind you, and lament how unfair it is that they have an easier time than you. But is in unfair? Are those people enjoying some benefit or advantage that is denied to you?
     Of course not. You've already travelled that stretch of road. You just travelled it much faster. Perhaps you had a bicycle, or a car, that let you cover those kilometers so quickly, while they're jogging, walking, or even crawling. There is no advantage they have over you that you haven't already enjoyed. You might legitimately complain that the road is too steep for you here, and you might even decide to emigrate to a different country where the roads are flatter, but you are in absolutely no position to complain about unfairness.

     And so, likewise, with progressive income tax. The very rich are not being penalized by higher taxes any more than you, having already travelled the gentle slopes, are being penalized by a steeper hill. They have already earned and used up their Basic Personal Exemption, and paid the same low tax rate as everybody else on the first few tens of thousands they earned this year. It's just that the tax rate, like the road, gets steeper the farther you travel along the income axis.

     It's important to emphasize that in this argument, I'm not claiming that we should implement progressive (or more steeply progressive) taxes because it would be fair to do so. Rather, I am here attempting to refute the specific objection that progressive taxes are unfair, which once you understand the math, is not just wrong but almost incomprehensibly wrong.

Monday, 12 October 2015

All of the Above

     There is an old joke to the effect that anyone who would voluntarily run for public office should be automatically disqualified from doing so. It's easy to see why this has resonance with a lot of people, because the kind of person who seeks political power very often is exactly the kind of person who shouldn't get it.
     I have to admit I share this general prejudice, although for me it is directed more at political parties than individuals. I have a strong disdain for partisan organizations for a variety of reasons, and so when someone says, "They're all a bunch of crooks!" there's certainly a part of me that wants to shout "Amen!" And I certainly share the desire to wash my hands of the whole thing and just walk away from it.
     And so I am sympathetic to those who either decline to vote or who deliberately spoil their ballots in protest, as a way of saying “None of the above!”

     But here’s the problem: there is no “none of the above” option on the ballot, and practically speaking, abstaining or spoiling your ballot is identical in effect to voting “all of the above”. One of these disreputable nogoodniks will be elected; the only way you could possibly frustrate that by not voting is if absolutely nobody else votes, either, but the fact that there are candidates who have taken the time to get nominated and run means that at least they are probably going to be casting ballots. The one who ends up with the most votes will win, regardless of how tiny the actual number of votes might be, and the fewer votes cast, the easier it is to get the most. So, by not voting, you are in effect actually tacitly accepting whoever it is that eventually wins: you may not have voted for them, but you did not vote against them, either.
     There really is only one way to vote against a candidate, and that is to vote for a different one. To put it another way, if six zombies are attacking, you only get five bullets. (Also, in our first-past-the-post system, you don’t get to shoot twice at the same zombie.) There’s always going to be at least one you don’t shoot at; choosing not to vote just means you don’t shoot at any of them; you think you’re expressing your disgust for all the zombies equally, but really you’re making it easier for them.

     Which is another thing. A lot of people, in throwing up their hands in disgust, say “they’re all equally bad!” But that’s not actually true. There will almost always be some variation in degrees of badness, and saying they’re all the same works to the advantage the worst of them, and to the disadvantage of whoever might be marginally better than the rest. In other words, by treating the worst as if they’re as good as the best, there’s little incentive for anyone to improve. Remember: declining to cast a ballot is functionally identical to voting for everyone. 


     Now, you might think that I’m arguing in favor of voting here, and of course I really would prefer it if more people showed up to vote. But in fact, I really have nothing against your choice not to cast a ballot. By all means, abstain if you want, but only if you are really and truly indifferent to who eventually wins. 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A special kind of stupid

     I've often seen this quote, usually pasted over a picture of Sam Elliot:

“You actually think criminals will obey gun control laws? You’re a special kind of stupid, aren’t you?”

      Here we see a splendid example of the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is when, instead of taking on your opponent’s actual position, you attack a harmless effigy of it. In this case, the claim is that proponents of gun control actually think that criminals will obey gun control laws, which is of course a stupid thing to expect. Ergo, proponents of gun control are “a special kind of stupid.” 

     Of course criminals won’t obey laws! But that’s actually kind of the point. Criminals tend to ignore laws, big and small, and they usually commit many more small crimes than big ones. That is, a person who commits major crimes tends to already have a lengthy criminal record of minor offences by the time they do something big. This fact can be used to help reduce crime in two main ways. 
     First, on someone’s first arrest for a minor crime, there are opportunities to set them on the right path so that they don’t reoffend. In Canada, judges can grant conditional discharges upon sentencing, ensuring that the accused will not have a criminal record if they complete a rehabilitative program or course or meet whatever other conditions are specified by the judge. Some of these programs actually have a pretty high success rate, meaning that people caught early for minor crimes rarely commit another one. And if someone is picked up for illegal possession of a firearm before they actually shoot someone with it, that’s actually a good thing.
     Second, there is parole. To many people it seems counterintuitive to let a dangerous criminal out on parole before the sentence is complete — they think he should serve his whole sentence! — but in fact it serves to help keep them off the streets longer if they are at all likely to reoffend. Parole means regularly checking in with a parole officer and keeping out of trouble; minor offences while on parole put you right back in jail, and for longer, because committing a minor offence while on parole is itself an additional offence with an additional sentence. Nobody really expects habitual criminals to obey their parole conditions. We hope they will, but if they don’t it’s actually a way to keep them locked up longer so they can’t commit more serious crimes.

     Gun control advocates, then, generally do not actually believe that criminals will obey gun control laws, and so the attacking that belief is attacking a straw man.
     Now, skewering a straw man doesn’t have any effect on an actual opponent, but it can still be an opportunity to show off one’s technique. But it can backfire if your technique is poor; unfortunately, in this case, the attack on the straw man demonstrates embarrassingly flawed reasoning. Consider: the argument seems to be that we shouldn’t have gun control laws because criminals don’t obey the law anyway. But that’s actually a pretty terrible argument. Should we not have laws against stealing? Against driving drunk? Against murder? After all, criminals won’t obey those laws.
    We have these laws, not because we expect criminals to obey them, but so we can do something about it if they don’t: we can punish them or force them to undergo rehabilitation or banish them or whatever it takes to reduce such behaviour.
     

     So do the authors of this kind of nonsense actually believe that their opponents expect criminals to obey the law? Do they actually believe there’s no point to passing laws that criminals will just break anyway? That’s two kinds of stupid right there.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Picking on Bullies

     Why is everyone always picking on bullies?

     Almost every day I see some earnest, well-meaning chain letter (it’s amazing how many Facebook status posts are actually chain letters) unironically urging me to “share if you’re against bullying!” I always find this amusing, because of course there is an element of bullying in that very message. But perhaps I should explain what I mean by “bullying”.

     Many people I talk to seem to think that bullying is simply a matter of coercion: Do as I say, or you will suffer. The threat need not be physical, of course; very often the threat is the implication that everyone will laugh at you and you’ll be an unpopular loser. While that’s often a part of bullying, I don’t think it’s sufficient. We might have other moral issues with a coercive ultimatum, but there are plenty of situations where we wouldn’t call it bullying. Standing up to a bully, for example, might well involve threatening violence, but it wouldn’t itself be called bullying. So what is it that marks a use of coercion as bullying?
     I think it is relevant that we often (though not always) describe bullies as cowardly. This suggests that bullying involves an element of bluff: the bully threatens a consequence he himself might actually fear to deliver on. But bluffing itself isn't necessarily cowardly, particularly when an underdog must project confidence to convince a more powerful opponent not to mess with her. So what is it about a bully’s bluff that differs from an ordinary bluff?

     What I've noticed is that the bluffs of bullies tend not to stand up to any serious scrutiny, and what's more, bullies often actively try to discourage their victims from looking too closely at what is threatened. I'd like to propose, then, the following theory of bullying.

     An act of bullying consists of an implicit or explicit coercive bluff, where the bully relies upon the victim's own failure to critically assess the credibility of the threat. 

     Now, a bluff is false by definition, so naturally any bluff will collapse under sufficient investigation, but a non-bullying bluff tends to assume the victim might perform at least bit of due diligence. Consider, for example, the scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley attempts to intimidate Prince Humperdinck into surrendering, and Prince Humperdinck actually accuses him of bluffing. Rather than denying it, Wesley explicitly acknowledges the possibility, but takes advantage of the fact that the Prince actually has no way, short of actually fighting him, to confirm his suspicion. Under my theory, Wesley’s bluff is not bullying, because his bluff is credible on its own merits, and while he exerts considerable effort to make it more credible (standing up and raising his sword takes all his strength), he does not at all attempt to dissuade Humperdinck from considering it critically. In a sense, Wesley’s bluff is honest, in that Wesley is encouraging Humperdinck to consider his next move carefully and calling his attention to a risk he may not have fully appreciated.
     In contrast, I argue that a bullying bluff is not just dishonest, but fundamentally disrespectful of the victim’s basic cognitive independence. Where the “honest” bluff presents evidence and trusts the victim to come to the desired conclusion, the bully presumes not only to present a threat, but to dictate its interpretation: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Of course, the bully does not have any actual power here, because it is ultimately the victim who must make the assessment of the threat. So, in fact, the bully’s only power is that which is voluntarily ceded to him by the victim.
     So, if I threaten to beat you up at recess if you don’t give me your lunch money, that’s usually going to meet the criteria for bullying, because I don’t expect you to look very closely at my threat or the circumstances around it. If you did, you might consider that you could effectively neutralize it by telling the teacher. As a bully, I will expect you to reject that option out of hand because only crybaby losers do that. I might try to reinforce that assumption, taunting you as a crybaby loser if you threaten to tattle, but it’s actually your choice whether or not to give that any credence; if you don’t believe there’s any shame in reporting my extortion attempt to the authorities, then I am powerless.

     It gets a bit more complicated when the assumptions at play are more widely accepted (although the disdain for “snitches” isn’t exactly uncommon). Sometimes the assumption might actually be true, in which case the line between emotional bullying and moral suasion gets fairly blurry. Nobody wants to be a bad person, and if I say you’d be a bad person if you kicked that puppy, I might actually not be bluffing: you would be a bad person. But I also might not be bluffing if I say you’d be a bad person if you, say, approved of interracial marriage; I might genuinely (but wrongly) believe that. At what point does expression of a moral judgment become bullying?
     As with so many moral wrongs, the answer lies in intent. In this case, the intent isn’t so much an intent to bully (many bullies have no idea they’re bullies) but rather an intention with respect to the questioning of assumptions: an unwillingness to allow for any questioning is a key indicator of bullying. I would argue that this is so regardless of the truth value of the assumption itself; one can still be dogmatic about it to the point of bullying.
     By the time it gets to you, a chain letter has been stripped of any initial intention and is just a string of words that somehow induces people to copy it and send it on to others, so it's not really meaningful to talk about a bullying intention as such. But they can and often do employ bluffs based on assumptions you're not expected to question, and some of them do come across very much like bullying. One claim I see from time to time is "99% of people won't have the guts to share this!" which rings the bully bell loud and clear. But what happens if we pay a little attention to the idea that it takes "guts" to share a chain letter?
     As for "Share if you're against bullying!", it's a bit greyer. I suppose you could read it as a terse way of saying “If you’re against bullying, I encourage you to share this message.” But the plain reading is “IF you are against bullying, share it” with the logical implication that if you don’t share it, you’re not against bullying. Nobody wants to be thought of as in favour of bullying, so the choice it offers you appears to be between forwarding the message or supporting bullying. And that is, at least by my theory, what qualifies the message as itself bullying: it depends upon the reader’s failure to stop and challenge the preposterously shaky premise that failure to forward a chain letter indicates support for bullying.


     It is mildly amusing to observe that an ostensibly anti-bullying chain letter bullies people into forwarding it, but there is a more serious issue here. Remember that bullying depends for its power upon the victim’s own agreement to the offered assumption, and so it thrives wherever there is a tendency to accept offered assumptions uncritically. Yet the practice of questioning assumptions does not come naturally to people, and what’s more, there are social conventions that actively discourage such questioning as rude. (Bullies very frequently rely on their victims being too polite to challenge them.) Examining these assumptions isn’t necessarily difficult, but cultivating the habit of doing so takes some effort. We need to train ourselves to be alert to instances of bullying, to recognize when bullying tactics are being employed, even benignly. And that’s why I make a point of mentioning, when I see “share if you’re against bullying!” that I’m not sharing it precisely because I’m against bullying.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Why do you need to convert me?

     Once upon a time, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I invited them in, and we talked for an hour or so. Although I didn’t share their beliefs, I was happy to give them the opportunity to convince me, and to that end I had to presume that maybe they knew something I didn’t. So I listened patiently, and when I had a question about something that didn’t make sense to me, I asked. After all, perhaps my objection was something they too once considered, but had found a satisfactory answer to resolve it.
     They kept coming back every month or so for the better part of a year, each time trying to answer questions I had posed during the previous session, although to be honest, I don’t think they ever really addressed any of them. It seemed to me more that they had promised to return, and when they had a new issue of the Watchtower, they did. But eventually it became clear to me that my initial presumption was rebutted; they did not seem to know something I didn’t know. On the contrary, it seemed that I had some understanding that they lacked. And so I told them that while they were welcome to keep trying to convert me, that was very improbable; it was much more likely that, as they came to understand my objections, they would come to doubt sooner than I would come to believe. They have not been back since.

     See, I’m not actually trying to convert anybody here. I understand that religious belief gives a lot of people comfort and purpose, and I don’t particularly want to take that away when I don’t really have something to offer to take its place. My atheistic world view works just fine for me, but I’ve spent close to four decades developing it. Applying any theory effectively takes a lot of practice, and the benefits gained may not always be worth the effort. We land space probes on other planets using Newtonian physics, even though strictly speaking Einstein’s theory is more accurate, but the Newtonian simplification gets the job done well enough. So if your belief in God works for you, I don’t really have a problem with it. If you want to convince me to share it, well, you’re welcome to try, and I’ll do my best to help you understand my objections so you can overcome them, if possible.
     But you do have to overcome them. If I find your beliefs nonsensical, you have to make them intelligible to me. I’ll try to help, but I really cannot just snap my fingers and make myself believe. That’d be a lie, and my conscience tells me that’s immoral. And if you ask me to do something I consider immoral, I’m likely to think you are immoral. So be careful with that.

     I’m writing this, as some readers probably suspect, because (at least) one of you has been commenting anonymously to try to cajole me into accepting a particular brand of Christianity, and I think I’ve reached the point where I’m satisfied that I have some understanding that you lack. Except unlike my Jehovah’s Witnesses visitors, you don’t appear able to accept defeat, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Some friends have urged me simply to block you or to delete your posts or to ignore you, but I feel uncomfortable with that, because I’m kind of a fanatic about open discussion and free speech.
     So why is it that you don’t give up? Part of it, of course, is the simple fact that you believe I’m going to Hell if I don’t convert, and you really don’t want that to happen. I appreciate that, though it makes me wonder a bit why I of all people merit such concern, when there are billions of others in every bit as much peril, and you could probably save many more of them in the time you spend preaching to me. Perhaps there is some personal connection, though I suspect there is something else at play as well, and that is what concerns me here.
     I’m a little worried, Anonymous, that there’s a hint of desperation in what you’re trying to do, and not just desperation for my sake. I’ve been trying to imagine what could motivate such tenacious efforts. Yours is a very demanding worldview, one that doesn’t take kindly to doubt. When eternal suffering awaits those who don’t believe, where belief itself becomes the principle virtue, it’s hard not to feel great anxiety around any doubt.
     Now, it if were just my doubt, you could sadly shake your head and leave me to my fate, and move on to the next poor soul in need of salvation. But I begin to suspect my doubt represents more than that to you. See, you’ve claimed many times that the evidence for God’s existence is obvious and irrefutable, readily available to anyone who is willing to consider it. But to me, it simply isn’t obvious at all. It really isn’t. So either you must conclude that I’m just profoundly, deeply dishonest (which you’ve sometimes hinted at) or that I’ve never considered the issue (which is obviously not true, given how much I write about it), or — horror of horrors — it really isn’t so obvious and irrefutable. 
     And that’s kinda scary, because if God’s existence isn’t obvious, if it’s possible for someone like me to be condemned to eternal suffering because something he earnestly tried to believe just wasn’t plausible to him, then that seems kind of unjust. Your perfectly just and merciful God has, apparently, created a reality in which cosmic injustices happen, and may not be fully corrected in an afterlife. Or, at least, if it isn’t an injustice, it may be hard for you to perceive the justice in it, and that in itself is a test of faith.

     I would try to reassure you that, just as you assure me belief will resolve all my concerns, disbelief will relieve you of your fear for eternal punishment, but I know it’s not that simple. Even if you have doubts, you can’t help but take the story seriously enough to keep such fears alive. But in any event, even if you have no fear for the hereafter, that’s not the only reason you might find doubt worrisome. There’s also the herebefore.
     I don’t know how long you’ve believed what you believe, or how much of yourself you’ve invested in, though I suspect it’s a lot. You seem to have wrapped up an awful lot of your self-image in your relationship with God. So perhaps you think that if I am right, and there is no God, you will have wasted all that time and effort and faith. Perhaps you fear that you shall have based your life on a lie, and all for nothing, if I am right. And maybe if you can convince me, then eventually you can convince anyone, and you can be at peace, assured that you were right all along.

     Believe me, I want you to have this peace. I really don’t want you to feel that you’ve wasted your life, partly because I don’t want you to suffer but also because I don’t believe it has been a waste. 
     When I was in grad school, back in the mid 90’s, I spent a couple of months struggling with a 20 page chapter of my thesis. I just could not get it to work. Something seemed wrong, somehow, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on what. Finally, I had an epiphany: the entire argument was wrong, and I was trying to prove almost the exact opposite of what I ought to have been arguing. Part of me, my old high-school minimum-word-count-assignment-writing self, lamented that I had just wasted 20 pages of writing and, like Sisyphus, had just been pushed 20 pages farther away from my destination. 
     But I wasn’t. I was, in fact, 20 pages closer. I had finished 20 pages of important work which brought me to a much better understanding of the subject, enabling me to write the rest of it with greater clarity and logic. The fact that those 20 pages would not appear verbatim in the finished text was irrelevant; they were research, and vital to the project’s success.
     In the same way, I would hope for you to see that your belief, true or false, has not been a waste. If your belief has helped you to find strength when you needed it, it’s been worthwhile. If it’s inspired you to be kinder to people than you otherwise would have, then it did some good. And if, in discovering that it might not have been literally true, you have gained a greater insight and understanding of the truly profound questions of the human condition adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty, then it has helped to make you wiser in a way you could not otherwise have been.


     I really would like for you to be at peace, but if you need me to believe in order to help shore up your own certainty, then I'm sorry. I just cannot be persuaded by the means you have chosen. If something is impossible, then it is false and no amount of fervent wishing and praying will change that, and even if I could simply will myself to believe a lie, it would still be a lie.
     The good news is that it is possible to be at peace with doubt. Indeed, it's possible to be at peace with God and to have faith in Him without any actual belief that He exists. I will not tell you that it is easy to do so, because it isn't, but it is possible, and that's all you need to know - for now - in order to have hope. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Stephen Harper is #justnotconservative

     How long does it take for a word to become its own opposite? There are lots of words that have usages that are near-opposites ("sanction", for example) and groups of words derived from the same root that have come to be opposites in a way ("host" and "guest", which are related to "hostile" and "ghost"), but the inversion of "conservative" is a curious case, because I've seen it flip in my lifetime.

     Once upon a time, to be conservative meant to be prudent and frugal. Conservatives recognized that the institutions of our society did not spring fully formed from the minds of one or two Great Leaders, but are the product of centuries of modification and refinement. A conservative looks at the vast accumulated experience of the common law, and humbly admits that she might not know why this or that rule or maxim was adopted, but assumes that it must be there for a good reason, if it's withstood centuries of testing, and so she applies the sensible principle: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." At the same time, she sees that this process of refinement is ongoing, and that careful incremental adjustments may still be necessary, but always tempered by an awareness that nobody really knows what they're doing well enough to be entrusted with making huge sweeping changes.
     I am happy to describe myself as conservative in this sense. As a law student, I enjoyed browsing through the ancient and honest-to-goodness-dusty old law reports, where learned judges now long dead wrote with great care about the reasoning that led to the decisions they delivered, and I was struck at how little has changed in the sorts of ordinary disputes human beings have with each other. We still bicker about who owns what and who owes what to whom and whether or not this or that insult should be compensated and how. We have a lot of experience in resolving these questions, and while it doesn't mean they've become easy, the basic principles of the process, the rules of evidence and the procedural rights of the participants, are exceptionally well-developed.

     There are some hints of this meaning still. Conservatives still claim to be motivated by moral values often considered old fashioned, and they like to think of themselves as students of history; it's easy to see how conservatism as I have described it could be associated with an affection for the past, even a preference for the Good Old Days.  It's an easy mistake to make, to jump from respecting the refined and polished results of many generations of muddling to concluding that the older generations themselves must have been smarter than today's young whippersnappers. Combine that with the way most of us seem to acquire a sense of entitlement to respect from our juniors as we age, and it's only natural that there be considerable overlap between prudent deference to tradition and curmudgeonly old-fogeyism, and that both of these things would be conflated together under the label "conservatism".

     But that overlap has always existed, and isn't the radical flip in meaning I'm talking about. The change I've observed has its roots in the election of Ronald Reagan. The shift was subtle at first. The older, traditionally conservative caution that we today should be careful how we govern because we are prone to error, morphed into a distrust of government itself; the motto "Government is the problem!" became mainstream with Reagan and Thatcher and has become the central tenet of those who today call themselves conservative.
     Subtle though the shift itself appears, it is radical, especially when combined with nostalgia for the good old days (which never actually existed) before government came along and ruined everything. The deference conservatives once held for time-tested human institutions, principles and traditions is now paid to The Market, and any government intervention in or tinkering with the Invisible Hand is anathema. Today's conservatives are supremely confident in their own expertise and judgment, and feel perfectly qualified to yank out and discard pieces of the engine of government without knowing or caring what vital functions they might have performed. The goal, as Grover Norquist has put it, is to shrink government down to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.
     Once upon a time we would have called this ideology "anarchism". But that word still bears the stigma of bomb-throwing crackpots of the early 20th century, if it is taken seriously at all. The anarchists have achieved quite a coup in seizing for themselves the label of "Conservative", a much more respectable word, with its cachet of common sense and frugality (even if the only thing today's conservatives are now frugal with is common sense).
   
     Today's "Conservative Party of Canada" is by far the least conservative of any of the parties running in this year's federal election. They are radical reformers, having managed to obtain the name "Conservative" when the old Progressive Conservatives disbanded after a particularly disastrous election defeat, and merged with what had formerly been called the Reform Party. "Progressive Conservative" may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't when you recognize that what they're trying to conserve and build upon is the result of centuries of incremental progress. "Reform", however, is much more nearly an opposite to the traditional meaning of "conservative". Yet it is the reformers who today march under the Conservative banner.
     So it is richly ironic to hear the campaign rhetoric, playing heavily upon the connotations of "conservative", urging us to be careful, not to take chances, to keep a steady hand on the helm, as if there is anything prudent or cautious about the party currently claiming to be conservative.
     You may agree with their decisions to cut funding to Statistics Canada, abolish the long form census and scrap libraries of scientific data that took decades to compile, throwing away important sources of information upon which sound policy decisions can be made. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you agree with Prime Minister Harper that elections, parliamentary procedures and civil rights are inconvenient obstacles to Getting Things Done, and support his efforts to minimize these checks on his power. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we live in a new and dangerous world, and that the ancient legal rights now codified in our Charter were never designed to contend with anything so shocking as plots of violence against Parliament itself. Maybe you think we need to surrender some of those rights in order to be safe. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we'd all be better off without the CBC or Canada Post or national parks or universal health care. Maybe you are in favour of all of the radical reforms the Harper Government has put into motion. I think these are all really, really bad ideas, but I am fundamentally committed to democracy and your right to support whatever policy platform you want. But understand that Harper's party is really #justnotconservative.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Trust the Experts: They're not THAT Smart.

     There are two very opposite mistakes crackpots and conspiracy theorist often make when they take issue with expert knowledge. The first, when I described here, is to grossly underestimate the intelligence of their opponents, whom they accuse of missing some ridiculously obvious fact. The second is to absurdly overestimate their abilities, usually when they're postulating some kind of elaborate coverup conspiracy.

      Consider the fortune-cookie admonishment, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (who predated fortune cookies, so it's plausible): "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." Why three and two, instead of two and one?
      Two people can keep a secret, because each knows exactly whom to blame if the secret gets out. If three people know a secret, and someone talks, the other two have a mystery on their hands, and may blame each other instead of the true leak. And if three people know a secret and one of them ends up dead, the other two may have much more reason to distrust each other, and motive to defect.
      The problem becomes exponentially greater the more people are in on the secret, and not just because there is less chance of being blamed for a leak. One person, keeping a secret to himself, will talk to no one. Two conspirators might talk to each other, so there's a chance of being overheard. Three conspirators have three pairings (AB, AC, BC) for secret communications that might be overheard. If you're part of a conspiracy with a hundred fellow co-conspirators you might on occasion talk to about the conspiracy, the opportunities for accidental leaks multiply fruitfully.
      So big secrets, involving hundreds or thousands of people in the know, are really hard to keep secret. Insanely, ridiculously difficult. Only in the most unusual circumstances has it been possible to pull this off, and then only for a relatively short time. The code breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, followed extremely strict protocols, but there's more to it than that: they were fighting a war against the Nazis which provided a very, very strong motivation to be careful.

      Let us then look at a typical "expert" conspiracy, one fairly near to my heart: that Big Pharma has been covering up a cheap and effective cure for cancer because they don't want to lose the vast profits they earn through less effective treatments.
      This is complicated, because there are actually several different secrets that need to be kept here, and "how to cure cancer" is only one of them. They'd also have to deal with a number of secondary secrets about the coverup itself, such as who knows about it, how they're motivating people to keep quiet, and so on. And those are very difficult to cover up, because unlike the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, it's kinda hard to sell "So we can make lots of money while people die" as a worthy motivation, especially when it's from a disease like cancer from which no one is safe. Seriously, if you were a cancer researcher, and you'd stumbled across a potential cure, how much money would you need to keep your mouth shut? And how much would that number change if your friend, your spouse, your child had a diagnosis? Those outrageous profits to Big Pharma would start to get spread pretty thin.
     Sure, we can get more sinister, if you want. Maybe The Conspiracy doesn't bribe cancer researchers. Maybe it makes them another offer, one they can't refuse. Something terrible will happen to them, something worse than them or their loved ones dying of cancer, if they let the secret out.
     Know what the problem with that is? A threat needs to be credible, and scientists in particular tend to be skeptical people: evidence is their business. So you've got to expect that a few of them are going to need more than just an anonymous "stop it, or else..." letter. Which means that you're going to have to let them in on some of your methods, so they'll believe you mean business when you tell them what will happen. And now you have someone in on a bit of your secret who is not entirely willing to cooperate, someone who will be looking for some possible opportunity to stop you. Because not only are you threatening him and his family, you're also doing it to conceal a valuable boon to humanity he's devoted his entire career to finding.
     But those secrets, difficult as they are to keep, are nothing compared to the big one, the primary secret of How To Cure Cancer. Because while maybe you have control over all your fanatically loyal operatives and can contain any situation they're involved with, Nature herself isn't on your team. There are thousands, even millions of people around the globe trying their best to figure out the puzzles of cancer. Some of them are very smart. How are you going to keep them from discovering something, and sharing what they learn? Especially when the entire scientific enterprise is based on publishing and reproducing results, and entire industries exist for just that purpose? They do, after all, publish results, lots and lots and lots of them. The sheer volume of material out there is much more than anyone can process, which is why there are so many scientists collaborating on these monumental challenges. And they're getting their results, not from some library you control, but from experiments and observations they're performing themselves, on real patients and real drugs.

     Just try to imagine how staggeringly difficult and complex a task it would be to fool or silence all of these people. It is truly mind-numbingly difficult, probably harder than curing cancer itself. In order to pull it off, you'd have to be superhumanly clever, and ridiculously powerful. And so think about it: if you were that smart and that powerful, why would you even care about the measly profits to be made from selling overpriced therapies that don't really work? If you can coerce  hundreds or thousands of brilliant researchers into concealing their research, why can you not just extort trillions of dollars from everyone else? Or heck, why even bother with money, which is just a way of trading with people for what you want. You've got the power to force people to act against their own interests; there's no need to trade with anyone!

     Telling a lie, telling a truly convincing and consistent lie, is really hard. People do it sometimes, and yes, there are successful conspiracies and coverups. Of course it's relatively easy for an expert to bluff their way past a completely ignorant lay person. But if you educate yourself a little, and ask intelligent questions, and try earnestly to understand what you're being told, it quickly gets much harder to sustain a consistent lie.
     You might hit the limits of your understanding, but if that happens, the humble and proper thing to do is to acknowledge that you really don't know, and reserve judgment, not to conclude that the experts must be lying to everyone. Because while they might well be smart enough to fool you, they're almost certainly not smart enough to fool everyone else.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Healthy Natural Foods: An Evolutionary Perspective

     Most of us don't think very intently about biology. Physics, sure -- we are constantly and often consciously applying Newton's laws whether we're tossing something in the wastebasket or driving down the highway -- but biology? No. Perhaps this is because Darwinian evolution, the central unifying principle of biology, is so poorly misunderstood by the public (thanks in part to creationists who go out of their way to Teach The Controversy in the form of their own tortured misconceptions), or perhaps it is because we fall into the trap of thinking that it's irrelevant to our daily lives, but in any case, it's unfortunate, because we are biological creatures and just about everything about us is informed by our evolutionary origins.
     In this post, I want to show how an understanding of the broad principles of evolution and ecology can help us avoid being taken in by a particular silly health fad, in the hope that the reader might learn to apply a similar critical informed approach to other fads as they appear.

     So let's consider a fairly common and plausible sounding claim here, one that underlies not just the Paleo Diet but a lot of basic "common-sense" thinking about health and food. The idea is that it's better to have foods that more closely resemble the kind of food we must have eaten in our pre-industrial past, natural raw unprocessed foods, because these are the sorts of foods we evolved to eat. Our bodies simply aren't equipped, so the argument goes, to deal with the incredibly rich diet our industrial age allows us, and all those artificial flavourings and preservatives can't possibly be good for us.
     That sounds eminently reasonable, and indeed it does seem to make solid evolutionary sense. After all, if we hominids have had millions of years to refine our ability to produce just the right enzymes to digest fresh fruit and insect grubs, why mess with a good thing? Why on earth would we expect to be able to digest a chemical invented within our lifetimes?

     Well, it's reasonable as far as it goes, but it's also incomplete. What it overlooks is that evolution doesn't just explain how we got here; it's the single unifying principle to all of biology, and also explains how every other living thing got here, including the ones that we eat.
     See, being eaten is usually how you lose the game of evolution. Every living thing on this planet is descended from an unbroken line of organisms that somehow managed to avoid being consumed until they produced at least one descendant. Every single cell in every body traces itself back through such a line to one common ancestor. Countless siblings have died without issue (often eaten by some other creature), but even they were descendants of unbroken lines of successful ancestors.
     This has been going on for something like three billion years. The occasional link in that chain might have survived just by sheer dumb luck, but the law of averages is against luck when such enormous time scales are involved. Most of your ancestors survived because they had an edge over the things that were trying to eat them, or the things they were trying to eat. Not a big edge, mind you. Just enough of one to survive, just long enough to produce offspring.
     Evolution isn't about perfection, after all. It's all about just good enough, but after three billion years of it, just good enough is pretty amazingly good, which is why we (and all living things) seem to be so exquisitely well-adapted to our environments.
     But we're not. The gazelle is just barely fast enough to escape the cheetah most of the time, and the cheetah is just barely fast enough to catch enough gazelles to make baby cheetahs. Plants (including the ones we eat) have evolved toxins or thorns or other defenses just barely good enough to kill or deter things from eating them enough for some of them to produce baby plants. And we became just barely good enough to survive eating those toxins long enough to produce human babies.

     The point here is that the foods we ate in our ancestral evolutionary environment really, really didn't want to be eaten, and they were trying to kill us, and they often succeeded. We just happen to be really tough, and really clever at figuring out ways to get around their defences so we could eat them without being fatally poisoned or otherwise killed. We discovered that if you heat some things over a fire, they become easier to chew and digest. We discovered that if you plant seeds from mutant not-so-poisonous fruit, you get more mutant not-so-poisonous fruit. We learned out to breed plants and animals that were easy to eat, and make more of them.
   
     While Nature is not exclusively red in tooth and claw, and there are lots of examples of symbiosis and cooperation (like tasty edible fruit to get animals to plant seeds in fresh manure), there really never was an ideal time when we lived in perfect harmony with Nature and it gave us everything we needed to live long happy lives. Modern agriculture and processed foods are not some perversion of what once was good and pure; they are a continuation of what we have always done, which is trying to make sure we have enough food to make babies.

     I am not saying here that all diets are equally healthy, or that natural foods are bad for you. Some foods are certainly much better for you than others, and there are definitely good reasons to pay attention to what we eat. I'm not a nutritionist or a biologist, and I don't pretend to offer any specific advice as to what you should or shouldn't include in your diet. What I am saying is that just as a solid grasp of the concepts of force and momentum can help you to make better driving decisions, a clear understanding of our evolution and ecology can better equip you to evaluate claims about diet and health.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

What's the big deal about legally recognizing marriages?

     My first year moot in Law School was about same sex marriage, which at the time was still not legally recognized throughout Canada, although it now has been for ten years, as it has been in all of the U.S. now for a week or so. So, naturally, it's a topic I've had many years to think about. But long before law school, I'd had reason to contemplate the state's role in marriage, because my wife was not a Canadian citizen when we married, which meant we had to jump through a significant number of hoops to be permitted to live together here. It was that experience (as well as the awareness that even in this relatively enlightened era, "interracial" marriages such as ours do not meet with universal approval) that led me to formulate the theory I'm about to put forward here.

     What is marriage? I'm going to suggest that it's a kinship relation, a pre-legal fact about the sort of relationship that might exist between two people. Put aside for the time being all the moral baggage about living-in-sin if your union is not officially celebrated by an ordained religious authority, and observe simply that in most societies, there's a tendency for adults to pair-bond, to form more-or-less stable monogamous domestic partnerships, often (but not always) associated with raising children. These relationships, whatever you call them, exist independently of any legal recognition, just like any other kinship relation. My son is my son, and no Act of Parliament or judicial fiat brought that fact into existence. It is, as I say, a pre-legal fact.
     Now, unlike most other kinship relations, marriage isn't usually something you're born into. It's something that generally comes into being once one is an adult, and there's often a fair amount of choice involved. Perhaps because of this, we seem to want to have some kind of punctual moment to observe when that relationship is recognized by the community, and so we celebrate weddings. Such things often become ritualized, and humans love any excuse for a ceremony and a feast, but while the ceremony might formalize things, the actual underlying relationship of the couple can and usually does exist regardless of any such observances.
     To be sure, the relationship itself is very much the product of the couple's own beliefs and attitudes about it, which means that if the couple believes a formal wedding ceremony is an essential part of becoming married, without which they are not married, then of course they're not married without the ceremony. But it's important to note that it is their belief, and not the ceremony itself, which is crucial; if they believed otherwise, the wedding ceremony would be a mere formality celebrating a relationship which already existed.

     In other words, whether or not a couple is actually married has nothing essential to do with the state or the church, or indeed anyone else. The ultimate authorities on whether I am married or not are me and whoever I purport to be married to; if we both agree the kinship relation exists, then it does. (It's rather like a contract this way, and although many legal traditions actually define marriage as a contract, I personally think that's misleading, for technical reasons I'll not get into here.)
     However, kinship relations, although they are not created by law, very often have important legal consequences. Family members have responsibilities towards one another that are recognized and sometimes enforced by law (although these are often only enforced when a relationship breaks down in some way), and so there is a legitimate state interest in documenting those relationships. Consider birth certificates: you don't need a birth certificate to be born; it's just a really convenient way of establishing the particulars of where and when, because these can be legally important facts, and it may not be convenient to have your mother or her obstetrician swear an affidavit every time you apply for a credit card or driver's license. Similarly, the state can (and ought to) issue marriage certificates to document the particulars of a marriage.
     My point, then, is that the role of the state is marriage is very simple and very limited: to keep a record of whatever kinship relations may exist, for the smoother administration of whatever legal processes might be affected by these relationships. Who should be the next of kin for medical consent? Who should inherit? Who is responsible for children's well-being? How should property be divided if and when a partnership dissolves?
   
     The reason there's such controversy about same-sex marriage (or as there once was, interracial marriage) is because we seem to think that it's the state or the church that actually marries us, or gives us permission to marry. And while that may be so in a doctrinal sense for some churches, and in a vestigial legal sense for the state (which issues what we still call marriage licenses, after all), it is neither necessary nor a realistic reflection of the relationships themselves, which as I have said exist quite independently, with or without our moral approval.
   
     And so, given this understanding of the nature of marriage and the state's role in it, I have to confess that my happiness at seeing the U.S. Supreme Court finally come around is tempered by a certain degree of exasperation that this should even have been an issue to begin with. That Canada figured it out only ten years earlier isn't really something that fills me with patriotic pride, either.
     I'm pleased, certainly.  Yet at the same time, I have cultivated an attitude of principled indifference as to whom you might choose to marry; it feels a little bit strange to be celebrating the recognition that something's none of my business.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Point

     My last post, like many others, precipitated a reply from an anonymous reader asserting that all my speculation is pointless without God. In the interests of keeping that conversation from taking over the subject of the original post, I'm going to raise the topic here: what does it even mean to have
"a point", and am I mistaken in thinking there can be one without God?

     Let me begin by acknowledging that I've said things like that myself. In particular, I have said that nothing in biology makes any sense without the theory of evolution, and that physics makes no sense without the concept of energy. I stand by those claims, because it really is unfathomably difficult to construct a meaningful, useful understanding of natural phenomena without the cognitive framework these theories offer. Maybe there is a way to do it, but no one seems to have come up with one that offers a smidgeon of a fraction of the predictive and explanatory power. So, I'm not necessarily hostile to the form of the argument: maybe there is a sense in which everything is pointless without a belief in God.
     What, then, can that mean? I will invite Anonymous (and anyone else who cares to comment) to explain this if I get it wrong, but as I understand it, the idea is simply that God is the ultimate source of all meaning and intention, and that to say that something has "a point" just is to say that it serves some purpose God somehow intends, either directly or indirectly. (Anonymous often seems to think that purpose ultimately leads back to a wish for all of us to acknowledge, love and worship God, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it's enough to leave God's ultimate purpose unspecified, and just posit that God's will is ultimately the end and beginning of all points.)
     Now, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this as a logical statement. If we accept the premise that God exists as the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the Universe, then it could not be otherwise. The problem, however, is that it's a tautology, and devoid of any meaningful information. Everything that happens happens because such an omnipotent God wills it. Everything. Good and evil, it's all the same, part of God's plan. His Ten Commandments may say "Thou shalt not murder," but every murder happens because He wills it. He may will us to have free will, but he ALSO wills us to use it however we end up using it. He wills us to cooperate, and He wills us to strive against one another.
     This is problematic, because it pretty much pulls the rug out from under attempts to evaluate any moral choices at all. You no longer can tell me that I shouldn't commit this or that act because God says it's wrong, because obviously if I do it that's what God wanted me to do. The best you can hope for is to say that God also commands you to do whatever it is you ultimately end up doing to oppose me. And that is a really, really nasty path: anything goes.

     In contrast, I think that the only morally meaningful stance to take is to acknowledge that responsibility is ours, not God's. Whether God exists or not, it's up to us to decide what we should do, because whatever we ultimately decide, God will ratify it when we attempt it. So the real question is not what God wants of us, but what we want God to want of us. (Kind of like how Her Majesty traditionally gives royal assent to pretty much anything Parliament passes. It's kind of pointless for MPs to debate amongst themselves what law the Queen wants to sign; their job is to decide what to pass.)
     In other words, I believe we have a moral obligation to act as if God does not exist, or at least as if God's wishes are unknowable. The Point, if there is one, is for us to exercise our volition, to engage in our own moral deliberation, and to find whatever Point we can to our existence.
     I do not know if God exists, but at the moment I tend to think He doesn't, and I've been pretty stable in that suspicion for quite some time now. Whether He does or not, though, I do feel that there is some kind of Point. There may not be, but that's not really my concern. I'm wired to feel there is, just as I'm wired to get hungry from time to time, so I live as if eating is a good thing, regardless of whether or not there's anything intrinsically, cosmically Good about eating. If you tell me that without some Platonic ideal of Satiety out there, my hunger means nothing, I will stop chewing just long enough to laugh at you. Similarly, if you tell me my life has no point without God, I refute it thus, by continuing to breathe.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Thoughts on a Violent Death

     Today my city, Edmonton, buries Corporal Daniel Woodall, its first police officer killed in the line of duty in 25 years. There has been an enormous outpouring of support for EPS, and there are blue ribbons tied to every tree and lamppost on many streets. By all accounts (including that of my own son, who knew him from training in the same martial arts school), Corporal Woodall was a kind and gentle person, respectful and respected, and his death can only be seen as an untimely tragedy.
     Yet while I do not in any way wish to diminish the honours paid to the fallen today, I have a question: why does violence occupy so disproportionately large a space in our emotions? Why is it that we attach such significance to a violent death, compared to a death that results from accident or disease?
     Is it because he took a bullet so we don't have to? That's a compelling and poetic way to put it, but probably not completely true; it's not at all clear that the man who shot him would have gone on to shoot civilians if he hadn't been arrested. But perhaps he might have, as he was being arrested on charges relating to extreme stalking and threatening behaviour. In any event, the precise details of the incident aren't really helpful here: the principal claim is that officers put themselves at risk to make us safer, and in principle that I can accept. It is indeed a noble thing to put oneself at risk for the benefit of others.
     But consider this: On April 22, a truck accidentally dumped a load of sand and gravel on a worker at an industrial park, and six days later he died of his injuries, on the very same day another worker was killed when the sewer trench he was excavating collapsed on top of him. They died to keep our highways safe, and for modern sanitation, which has saved countless millions of lives.
     In 2014, there were 25 fatalities in farming accidents in Alberta.  These people died to keep us well-fed.
     In 2013, 1129 people died in the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory. These people died to keep us inexpensively clothed.
     Again, I really do not mean to diminish Corporal Woodall's sacrifice. What I am trying to make sense of here is why we fail to recognize the sacrifices of these other workers as heroic as well. Their deaths were no less tragic, and for purposes no less noble.

     I think it comes down to violence. We seem to fear violence much more than we fear other more serious threats.  People buy guns to protect themselves from crime, yet the risk of a home invasion or mugging is considerably less than the risk of accidentally (or intentionally) shooting yourself or a loved one. People choose to drive (and bear the substantially higher risk of a traffic accident) to avoid the perceived danger of terrorist hijackers on commercial airlines.
     Why is this? Why do we see violence as so much more frightening than other dangers? Maybe it's because of the malice involved, that it's someone's deliberate choice to do harm. It's hard not to take that personally, to be offended that the aggressor valued his or her personal interest higher than another human being's life. And when something is purposeful, it feels harder to escape it, somehow; an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.
     Whatever the reason, our fear gives violence huge and unwarranted power over us. I've written about this before, and don't really want to go over it at great length again here. What I want to do in this post is to encourage some reflection on our emotional response to violence. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't be expressing sympathy and support for EPS -- of course we should! -- but rather that in doing so we should be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the fearful mystique of violence.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Preliminary Taxonomy of Chain Letters


Note: This is another of the articles that used to reside on my old web page. I have actually still been working on the concepts in this one, and am in the process of significantly restructuring the higher levels of this taxonomy. In particular, I think there should be two levels added to our traditional Linnean model: World and Medium. Chain letters thus belong to World Terra, Medium Mnemia, Domain Homoites, Kingdom Semantic, Phylum Lingates. But more on that later: this is the original draft, before the explosion of chain letters as image macros on Facebook and elsewhere. Much revision needs to be done, preferably with someone who can correct my amateurish pseudo-Latin/Greek derivations. Also please note that this taxonomy is based entirely on structural similarities, not cladistics. 



Kingdom Mnemia (Memetic organisms)
Phylum Lingates (Transmitted by human speech/language)
Class Graphiformes (Normally found in written form)
Order Alysographia (Chain letters)
Family Pyramides
This family is named for the pyramid scheme structure common to all members of the family. Each specimen in this family will include a list of addresses of its last 4 to 10 hosts, and instructs the current host to alter this list by adding his or her address to this list and removing the oldest address from it. Hosts are also directed to send a small sum of money to each name on the list.
Genus Pyramidia

This is the oldest genus in the family, including the progenitor species of the entire family. Pyramidia simply instruct their hosts to send money to previous hosts, without further adaptations. The most well-known species is P. rhodii.Genus Nominalegus

Known from a single species, N. nominalegus, this genus has evolved an adaptation to circumvent a common resistance in many hosts, the idea that pyramid schemes are illegal. Nominalegus instructs hosts to include a slip of paper with the money they send to previous hosts, one which is to be written "Please add me to your mailing list." This is claimed to be a service in exchange for the money sent, allegedly making the entire transaction legal.

Genus Tetralogia
These are highly complex chain letters, with very elaborate instructions for the host. Like NominalegusTetralogia attempts to circumvent the hostís concerns of illegality by require the host to purchase a "business report" from each of the last few previous hosts, which are in turn to be sold to subsequent hosts. The most common species is T. vulgaris, which has been observed in several subspecies (T. vulgaris ericksoni, T. vulgaris liddelli, etc.) A separate species, T. pentalogus, with five unique reports has been observed but is thought to be extinct.

Family Petitiones

Members of this family are characterized by the additional behaviours induced in the infected host apart from simply replicating them. In general they call for a message to be sent to a fixed address, though some may call for postcards, letters or phone calls.
Genus Petitia
Like Pyramideans, Petitioneansí code is modified with each infected host, albeit in a much simpler fashion. Each host is instructed simply to add his or her name to the list before passing it on. Typically, every 50th host is requested to forward a copy to a particular email address to be compiled. A representative species of this genus is P. talibani.Genus Amphoralogia
Closely related to Petitia, these are the "message in a bottle" chain letters, which instruct the recipient to send a message to a particular address in addition to forwarding the chain letter to numerous subsequent hosts. A. shergoldi is the most well-established species.
subgenus Ostraconus
These are usually maliciously created with the goal of overwhelming the email account of a victim with unexpected responses from infected hosts. O. joescomi is an example.
Family Superstitiones

The oldest group of chain letters, Superstitiones rely on a the power of a bribe or a threat (often both) to induce their hosts to replicate them. Unlike Pyramides, there is no actual mechanism to deliver the threat or reward. The oldest members of the family are those claiming that bad luck will befall those who fail to pass them along.
Genus Fortunas
The oldest known chain letters belong to this genus, and there are many species still circulating today. Essentially they promise the host good luck in exchange for replication, and threaten bad luck if the chain is broken. F. venezueli is probably the most well-known species.Genus Polygrades
These chain letters tend to make specific claims about what will befall the host for a given level of replication. For example, one might claim that failing to forward the message at all will result in certain death, forwarding it to between 1 and 10 recipients will result in a mere maiming, 11-20 forwards will have no effect, 21-30 will bring some good luck, and more than 30 will win the lottery for the forwarder.subfamily Theseidae
The theseids are a very large group characterized by the claim of an embedded "email tracking program" as a mechanism supporting the reward system. (It is quite rare for theseids to rely on threats, although at least one threatening species has been sighted).Genus Pseudopremium
These theseids promise the host a direct reward for replication, which typically will be sent once the total number of hosts reaches a threshold. A typical species is P. disneyi, which offers free trips to Disneyworld for the first 5000 hosts. Similar species include P. milleriP. guinnessiP. nike, P. honda, and many others. Especially noteworthy is P. gatesi and its several subspecies, each distinguished only by a different reward offered.Genus Samaritans
Samaritans differ from Pseudopremiums in that the host does not expect to receive the reward personally. A typical Samaritans will claim that an anonymous benefactor will donate a few cents to some poor childís medical care for every new host. Identified species to date include S. mydek, S. jada, S. cohen, S. relek, S. bruce, S. hendrix, S. martin, S. bucklew, S. beerman, S. flyte, S. lawitts, S. connor, S. hafeez, S. doe and others.
Family Notifera

This very large and diverse family relies on the perceived utility of its content for replication. There are two main subfamilies.
subfamily Transmissus
Hosts are explicitly instructed to forward copies of the message to others. The following are only a small sample of the many genera extant.
Genus Cautionus
Warns the host of some real or imagined danger. C. anaphotus, C. toxotelephonus, and C. achillitomia all warn of various violent gang initiation rituals; C. euchronus and others warn of email viruses, and so forth.Genus Inspirates
These consist of some inspirational message, followed by the instruction to share it with a friend.
subfamily Spontanes
Spontanes are unique in that they do not explicitly instruct the host to replicate them, relying instead on the intrinsic entertainment value of their content to provoke spontaneous replication.
Genus Eythymia
These are jokes and increasingly attachments of amusing images, sounds or other files which are usually forwarded on to new hosts without alteration.Genus Trivialus
Lists of trivia and "fun facts". Like the Urban Legends (class Oriformes, family Politimythos), they depend heavily on the claim that they are true. For example,T. quaylei would probably not be so widespread if it purported to be simply a list of dumb things for a politician to say, rather than a list of things Dan Quayle really did say.Genus Exoreferens
Members of this highly optimized genus usually contains little more than a URL directing the host to an amusing or interesting document. Occasionally a remark such as "Check this out!" is included.