Harper’s changes to the census are an attack on science

fascism poster

Harper's census changes stink of fascism.

Steven Harper’s ultracon, intelligence-free government is at it again.  Der Führer von Kanada and his cronies have decided to drop the mandatory long census form that was distributed to one in five households, in favour of a different – and relatively useless – optional long form to be distributed to more people.  Besides the increased environmental impact (“optional” only means that more of them will end up unused in the trash), it undermines the information-gathering that is absolutely fundamental to plan for Canada’s future. (Updated 21 July 2010.)

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God by Practise: Swing and a Miss

The Atheism Bus in London

This is putting it mildly.

Some, like religious historian Karen Armstrong (author of The Case for God), have argued that while you can’t prove God, you can come to understand the necessity of God “by practise.” I find this kind of argument quite specious.

One example I’ve heard to explain this God-by-practise thing, is dancing: you can’t learn to dance by reading a book. To learn to dance one must actually practise. Similarly, the argument goes, you can’t know God except by living an appropriate life to gain the right mindset and experience set to reach a certain kind enlightenment.

I disagree.

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“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Matter is just empty space

New findings tell us we’re all just fluctuating vacuums. This changes the notion of calling someone an airhead.

On 20 November, 2008, New Scientist reported on work being done with a new approach to modelling quantum effects called Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (or just Lattice QCD). As a result, they’ve been able to more accurately model some of the observed properties of elementary particles, like protons.

The article raised some points that I found interesting.

1. Science Rules!
Work like this strengthens my belief that science is the winning paradigm. I see science as a process of constantly pushing back the boundaries that separate irrational, dogmatic, and religious thinking, and replacing it with a more consistent and realistic way to understand everything. Even 10 years ago, this kind of work would have been considered little more than science fiction, but now it’s the best way we have to describe the universe (including us). I love the notion of seeing what will happen in the next 10 years.

2. Maybe I was right!
I have this vivid memory of reading through the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future when I was a teenager – well, younger than 22 certainly (since I was still living with my parents then, and I didn’t move out till I was 22). The memory is of reading about the Planck Length, a distance thought to be the smallest distance that has any meaning, and is calculated entirely from other physical constants. (There are other Planck units for mass, time, etc.) Back then, these were just weird values that, scientists thought, might have special physical meaning. I remember thinking how it rather made sense that space could be discrete and not continuous as we all assumed. We could only exist at the vertices of some universal grid and only move between gridpoints. This resolves Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion, which assume continuous space. It also suggested all kinds of crazy ideas for travelling faster than light – hey, I’m a geek, remember? Anyways, at the time, the kind of work reported in New Scientist was a physicist’s wet dream. But I’d thought of it.

3. The language of science is a problem.
In the comments at the end of the New Scientist article, there are some troubling themes. The first comment question’s the use of the term “confirmed” in describing the state of affairs in physics. The problem is that confirmation can mean a variety of things. Check the dictionary. It can mean the establishment of a truth, or just reinforce or support a statement or position. It is only in this latter sense that scientists use the word. They know that they can’t ever know anything with absolute certainty. All they can do is increase their confidence in a “fact” to the point that it is unreasonable to think of an alternative. But when such language gets out into the common folk, all manner of trouble can start. It’s the same problem that researchers in evolution face in calling it the “theory of evolution.” All kinds of ignorant putzes with political agendas love to argue “evolution is just a theory – so it might be wrong!” Again, science has a language that is quite precise, and the common folk don’t use words the same way. Science’s greatest problem, these days, is that of communicating their results meaningfully to the rest of the world. There’s so much good stuff in science; but it’s not getting interpreted correctly by the public exactly because the scientists aren’t looking for ways to address the differences in how they speak and write, and how those words come to have meaning for non-scientists. Perhaps one of the greatest design problems of our time is to devise a way for scientists to communicate well with the public.

4. Too many people don’t understand enough about science.
Read the comments in the New Scientist article. If you have any kind of science or engineering background, you’ll probably get depressed thinking about how vapid some of the commenters must be. Several commenters express weird emotions (depression, anger) at the thought of matter not really existing – that it’s all just energy. Well, DUH! We’ve known that ever since Einstein discovered that E=mc2! Indeed, it’s not that matter is just energy, or vice versa – it’s that matter and energy are the same thing! You can no more say matter doesn’t exist as you could say energy doesn’t exist. Then there’s the guy who thinks matter is “frozen energy” or the guy who thinks elementary particles are “spinning disks.” These are all just models, people. All we have are models. Everything we see and are conscious of is just a model of something else that we can’t experience directly. It’s reading stuff like this that makes me wonder how the heck humanity ever managed to survive.

On the other hand, we’re still here. So we must be doing something right. But seriously, we need to start listening more closely to the intellectuals – they’re the ones who have the best understanding of how things really are. And the intellectuals need to learn to speak and write in ways that more people will understand. Or the gap between these groups will just continue to grow. And that won’t be good for anyone.

Harper lashes out at academics

Stephen Harper’s distrust of intellectuals may be the undoing of the country.

As part of his effort to get re-elected Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has proposed amendments to the Criminal Code so that serious crimes are not eligible for conditional house arrest sentences.

The media (e.g. 1) tell us that criminologists are largely convinced that harsher sentences do not deter crime. This seems to be reasonable: with hardly any effort at all (a few minutes with Google Scholar), my query for “house arrest recidivism” turned up no fewer than four journal papers on the first page of hits. All of them were studies or reviews of other studies based on actual data on the benefits of house arrest (2,3,4,5). They were all quite clear: house arrest is at least no worse than proper jailing in terms of recidivism, can often be better, and usually cost less. I found no papers that argued for the opposite position. Not that this is a definitive review of the literature, but it’s quite suggestive.

But Harper says,

“Those are the people who have advised soft-on-crime policies for 30 or 40 years. Yes, we believe they are wrong.”
“We’re listening to ordinary people…. Not people who work in ivory towers, but people who actually work on the street and deal with crime on a day-to-day basis.”
“We don’t believe that house arrest is a suitable punishment for serious crime.”

Also, I heard CBC Radio report that Harper chooses to listen to victims, to police, and to attorneys general.

Well, I am a university professor – I’m one of those “ivory tower” types. And I am insulted that my own Prime Minister would derogate any person who gives his life to the pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of mankind. It’s a slap in the face that I, on behalf of the professoriate generally, simply cannot tolerate.

Harper owes academe dearly. Indeed, we all do. If it weren’t for the professoriate, we’d be living more or less as they did 500 years ago.

The roof over your head, the PDA that keeps you organized, the food you eat, the medicines you take when you’re ill, the car you drive, the television camera that broadcasts Harper’s beady-eyed visage across the country, the art hanging in galleries and museums all over Canada, the songs you whistle when you go to work, the poetry you recite to convey your love to your wife…. All of this exists because of people in so-called ivory towers, who have preserved it all, in many cases created it, and then made sure that people learnt about it.

Academics are the gatekeepers and creators of fundamental knowledge. If it weren’t for academics, science wouldn’t exist, and would have never pushed back the tyranny of dogmatic philosophies and religions in the West (think: Spanish Inquisition versus Renaissance). If it weren’t for the influence of a (relatively) free-thinking academy, virtually none of the social movements that have revolutionized modern society – generally for the better – would have happened.

Sure, many important innovations have been created outside the usual academic setting, in everywhere from military skunk works to the machine shop in a garage up the street. But it’s all been enabled by academia. Our modern world is an artifact that required other artifacts to construct. Modern technology exists mostly due to the technologies that came before, which enabled new thinking, new inventions, new ways to improve our quality of life. To make something as simple as a pen requires a set of technologies that have been under nearly constant development for hundreds of years. The knowledge to create, maintain, and optimize those technologies lies predominantly in the academic world. Academics are the ones who run the analyses that decide which manufacturing techniques are best. We’re also the ones that teach the people that make technology work.

You can say the same of academics in the arts. “Ivory towers” are full of philosophers, linguists, historians, and other experts that contribute to society every day, by developing systematic perspectives of how things are, and were, and how they might be in the future. Art curators, who maintain our artistic heritage, have academic backgrounds. Poets and writers often rely on their education – constructed by academics – to give them the skills to write beautiful and important works. Those important works are then analyzed extensively by academics, for the sake of exploring their richness and then making that richness available to their students.

And criminologists (and social justice expects, etc) are of this group too, experts who have developed whole disciplines, whole bodies of knowledge based on all kinds of empirical studies. They know more than the rest of us put together on matters of crime and justice. And they must be listened to, for no other reason than that.

There is absolutely no question: one must trust academic experts, precisely because they are experts. There are no other groups whose opinions can be trusted more.

If it weren’t for us residents of the “ivory towers,” Harper would be living as a cave man, digging for grubs under rocks, in abject fear of being eaten by some predator. There would be no Canada for him to govern.

How dare someone in Harper’s position – elected by the people – speak to any intellectual in such a way!

Unfortunately, Harper’s illogic does not stop there. It’s one thing to distrust those who should be trusted; it is quite another to trust the untrustworthy.

Harper would prefer to trust the “ordinary people.” These are the kinds of people who write comments like those published in The Star online. It is evident that most of these people have virtually no connection to the actual facts. They are responding based on anecdotal evidence, which is the worst kind of evidence there is: localized, incomplete, and highly unreliable. But these people don’t know it because they lack the required education, expertise, and in many cases, brains.

I also heard on CBC Radio that Harper says he is listen to victims, police officers, and attorneys general. Unfortunately, none of these groups can be trusted either.

Victims of crime cannot be trusted because they are under abnormally high psychological and emotional stress. It is extremely unlikely that victims can give a true account of what they have gone through. It would be far better to have the victims assessed by a dispassionate third party – say a court-appointed psychologist, whose expertise ensured a more reliable account of the matter. But so long as victim testimony itself is used, then there is no reliable assurance of the quality of that testimony.

The police cannot be trusted because they are by definition in favour of punishing criminals. The function of police is designed to be counterbalanced by the function of the legal system – including defence attorneys – because it is well-recognized that policing is a lop-sided approach to public security. It is not surprising that police are in favour of harsher sentencing. There isn’t a police force on this planet that would not be similarly inclined. Police officers also lack the expertise to evaluate mechanisms of punishment because their role does not extend that far – the police have by definition no say in how criminals are punished. By listening to them, Harper is extending their power far beyond what the law allows.

Attorneys general cannot be trusted because they are exclusively on the side of the Crown – of the prosecution, not the defence. They are by law required to prosecute criminals regardless of their own views on any particular case. It is not surprising that Harper does not include defence attorneys in the list of people he chooses to listen to, because they would never support harsher sentences, regardless of what they might think in any particular situation.

So, we have experts, and we have non-experts. Harper is choosing to side with the non-experts, in complete contradiction to every rational and logical notion. He draws those non-experts from a pool of candidate groups such that they are all predisposed to agree with Harper. He is stacking the deck in his favour, which makes him intellectually dishonest and a cheat.

As far as I know, he has never explained why he would do something so stupid. I can only assume that this is part of the general “conservative” philosophy: resist change at every turn and maintain obsolete value systems based on religion, patriarchy, and a class-based oligarchy.

And in the process of pushing his witless agenda, Harper has seriously insulted the one group who are the most well-suited to help Canada solve its problems: the academics.

We really, really do not need Harper’s kind of thinking in Canada.