Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another one to remember.

Thanks to Steven Novella at neurologica/SBM, though I have seen this one before somewhere. Another tool in the argument box I need to start keeping.

"You can't prove it's false -> absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

I have had this one used on me before. It's not actually try though. Or rather it's only true as a universal. As a local statement, it can be but is not necessarily true. For example, "There is an elephant in my house". I search my house looking for an elephant and find no evidence for one. At which point in time I can pretty conclusively say, there is no elephant in my house. In which case absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

If you want to be reeeeally picky, technically I might have a mental disorder that prevents me from seeing elephants in my house. In which case absence of evidence is still pretty good evidence of absence. It might not be proof of absence, but it's pretty good evidence. And I would probably still draw the conclusion that there are no elephants in my house.

From a limited viewpoint.

Had a pleasant long weekend, involving sitting on Mt Eden having fish and chips and cider with a few friends as the sun went down. Rather pleasant it was. At one point, the conversation trundled its way around to rising prices and following that path, onto taxes. As always when these things come up in conversation, I'm not particularly good at marshaling all my thoughts together on the spur of the moment. So I thought I'd give it a go here.

We are all painfully aware that prices are rising, while wages, not so much. One of the group is in the high income bracket, thus she gets taxed the most out of any of us. Her worry, was that new policies released, or at least talked about, by the Labour party were going to result in her paying higher taxes without gaining any material benefit. She did say that she would be quite happy to pay high taxes if she got something for it, such as free health care or education. None of us get that though, so she was a tad unhappy I think at the idea of paying more. If I was someone capable of thinking quickly, I would have like to have raised the following points.

1) We are already getting something for the taxes we pay. A baseline of health care. An educated youth (or at least partly depending on who you listen to). Roads. Local councils. Free health care, free education and the like exist. Examples were given of scandanavian countries that do this. Their taxes though, as best I can tell with a little digging are significantly higher, especially for high income earners. If you take the money that we currently pay for power, water, private health care and education and tacked that on to what we currently pay in taxes I imagine what is spent would be something similar.

2) Recently we had a GST rise. We also had a tax cut. For poor people, these two things essentially cancel each other out. For people in higher income brackets the amount of the tax cut is significantly higher than the the cost of the extra GST. Why should the upper income brackets pay more? Because they want basic services and they can afford it. Yes they might work longer and harder (though I doubt it, they just have better paying jobs, there is nothing inherent in a web designers job that makes that job more worthy than a janitorial position, if anything, it's the other way round) but if you assume that the society as a whole needs certain basic services and that the poor have to pay just as much as the high income earners then you are effectively starving an entire sector of the community. Which is basically saying that poverty is okay, as long as you are not in it.

Basically, it doesn't make sense for an individual to look at the tax they are paying and ask, what am i getting for this? The questions that need to be asked are:
  • what services do we as a society want to fund?
  • are we as a society paying enough to fund those services?
Then you get down to the nitty gritty questions of who pays what. The whole idea of those with more contributing more is that as a society we have the ideal that there are certain baselines under which we do not want the lowest rungs of our society to fall under. If you don't care how low some people fall, then that is a fundamental difference which makes this conversation impossible. If you share the assumption that there should be some baseline, then we need to discuss how society as a whole handles it. Who can contribute what and so forth. I don't think looking at it from the point of view of an individual taxpayer necessarily makes sense though. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making shit up.

I really wish Keith Ng would write more often. I like his forthwright, easy to read musings on what passes for economics or at least economic spin in this country. He's usually quite good at pointing out how badly people are using statistics in the pursuit of supporting a pre-determined point of view. The idea that you can use statistics to prove anything is a load of bollocks. The notion that you can use statistics badly to support any idea you want has a lot more going for it.

In a similar vein, best post title I've seen this month: Bill English and metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology

Classes in statistics and logic forMr English methinks. And everyone who takes what he says at face value.

Making an argument.

There is a cafe that I attend regularly on Saturday mornings. slightly out of my way, but pretty much the best coffee in Auckland all these sad sad years since Brazil closed. I enjoy it there. The coffee is good. The food is good when I can afford it (not that it's expensive, it's more that I'm usually broke), the music is consistently all over the place and good and there's usually a few interesting characters at the bar.

A few weeks ago now, I was goaded into a conversation by one chap who I believe was playing devil's advocate via the "you can't prove there are no gods/unicorns/fairies" gambit. Easy enough to dismiss with a fairly standard reply (thank you Douglas Adams) that is sufficient for random Saturday morning discussions. Unfortunately, it brought out local conspiracy theorist/woo proponent into the fray. I don't recall how we got onto it, but soon enough we were talking about how he'd had an encounter with a psychic in the Coromandel who "knew things she couldn't possibly know". Don't they all. Anyway, long story short, I ended up trying to explain the logic of causation. i.e. just because he had had a "spiritual experience" doesn't mean that ghosts exists, just that he has had an experience of some sort. i.e A, B, does not imply that if A then B. It was an ... interesting morning, arguing with someone who will not consider that their view might be wrong.

All this comes to mind thanks to a post from Jennifer Rohn. She is a little more understanding than young Carl Zimmer who is currently despairing about the lack of scientific knowledge in the American population. Carl was alarmed by the fact that only 18% of the population could identify the definition of a molecule. And I think Jennifer was quite right in pointing out that this is part of a occupational vocabulary. What I find more alarming though is not that people can't remember definitions, it is that they can't follow through an argument. As in a proper logically constructed argument, not two people ranting at each other. When people can't see how a proposition cannot justify a conclusion. This is not, I think, a problem of science education. Or it is at a step removed. It is covered (badly) in first year classes in informal logic at university level. Even now though, a majority of our population do not go to university. I am beginning to think that all our science outreach programs to schools, should include a philosophical auxiliary class, on how one can reasonably structure an argument to defend a point of view. And maybe one on what science can actually know. Robert Nola would be the man to ask I think.

It doesn't solve the problem of trying to communicate the idea of constructing an argument to the general population though. I'd like to think it's not to late to reach them, given that large chunks of them will be running our societies for the next 40 or 50 years. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Drinking responbily.

Walking to work this morning, I walked past, as I almost always do, a billboard advertising, I think, bourbon. Which bourbon, I can't recall, but that's not important. Down in the bottom left hand corner is a little speech balloon attached to no one, asking us to drink responsibly. I've seen this about for a while. And I've seen quite a few, general degenerative comments about the drink responsibly campaign. The idea behind it is good. I do think however, that it is being gone about the wrong way.

It is generally held, that because it is the alcohol industry behind the drink responsibly tags that are adorning our alcohol advertising, that they don't really mean it because they want to sell as much alcohol as possible. This, I think, or a least hope, is not a particularly well thought out criticism of the people who run large alcohol companies. As much as I disagree with some of their products and marketing (only some mind, some of them are fantastic) I rather hope that the people running these companies aren't stupid. Yes, they've got a bucket load of money to throw at lobbying politician's, but lobbying will only take you so far if the entire population is against you. I am presuming that they will not be wanting a tightly regulated industry. Which makes sense. So efforts have to be made to keep the industry from being regulated. And for this, I imagine the best approach would be two pronged. First, be very nice to the politicians. Secondly, show the community that you're part of it, rather than just a company trying to squeeze as much money out of people as quickly as possible. I'm pretty sure, you make more money by keeping a reign on things and being in a lightly regulated market for 20 years than you do by abusing the market for a few years, striping it of every cent, fucking things up and then being in a tightly regulated market for the next 15. So because it's industry behind it, they don't really mean it, doesn't really stack up. I do however, think they are going about it the wrong way. The right way of course ...

Friday, October 8, 2010

The green wave

The Green Wave in Copenhagen from Copenhagenize on Vimeo.

This is pretty cool. I found this on Neuron Culture over at Wired Science. In Copenhagen they've set the traffic lights up on some of the bike routes so that if you wander along at a steady 20kph (not unreasonable) you get green lights all the way into the city. Which would make biking very attractive, I imagine for anyone living with 4 or 5 kilometers of the city center. If the number of people who drive and live that close to the city center in Auckland is any indication, that would take a fair chunk out of the car numbers heading in every day. Sadly, I don't think it would work in Auckland. To many hills. You'd have to figure out average speeds up hills and down hills and along flats and work that all into the lights, which I imagine would snarl things up pretty spectacularly in some places. Pity the only traffic engineer I know is in south america at the moment, I'd ask him for an opinion.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Breast Cancer

Apparently it's breast cancer awareness month again. Facebook profile pictures started turning pink along with the message that it was to raise awareness of breast cancer. Fair enough, nothing against that, it's visible (I noticed it) and it passes along the message.

Then comes the "I like it" campaign. As far as I can tell, no one knows who started it, I don't particularly care. Apparently it's meant to get women to post, on facebook, where they like to put their purse. the theory being that men being men will think about rude things which will then get them thinking about breasts and eventually, about breast cancer. Which is just ... dumb. Speaking as a web literate male, the first time I saw it, I got as far as the first step, thinking rude things. Second time I saw it, I went, aha, that's someone trying to be clever and start a meme of some sort. Fifth time I saw it, I went meh, whatever, it's not saying anything. A bit quicker maybe, but pretty much the same chain of reasoning that I went down with the "All your base are belong to us" meme years ago. That's cool, oh, it's someone trying to be cool, whatever.

If it's a meme for a meme's sake, yeah, there's a bit of humour, that can be nice. If you're trying to start a meme to get a message across and it has to be continually explained, through 2 or 3 more steps of reasoning, reasoning that there is pretty much no way anyone would arrive at without having explained, then it fails completely in what it set out to do.

You've just written a whole post about it some might argue, thus raising awareness. Look back, this post is about pointless badly constructed ways of getting your message across. Not about breast cancer. Which is only drawing attention away from the cause that the original message was created to draw attention to. Which is ... dumb

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Adaptation and Natural Selection.

A few weeks ago, a chap named George Williams died. He was, apparently a quite famous American biologist. In the 1960's and 70's he was a proponent of the idea that the gene rather than the organism is the unit of selection. A Dawkins predecessor and and anti-Gould.

It's not so much his views that I want to note today. It's the fact that I'd never heard of him. I've been studying biology with varying levels of intensity for a few years now. Admittedly, some of it has been quite specialized, focused on changes in protein structure as a result of changes in nucleotide sequence. The point is though, is that here is this chap, someone who apparently, a huge influence on the way we look at natural selection and I've never heard of him until he dies. I find that a little bit disturbing to say the least. Upon hearing about him, I decided to have a crack at reading his book Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought. And so far, I have to say that I am not unfamiliar with the ideas or the constraints he explicitly places on the language used to talk about evolution. As I see it then, I am aware of his ideas only because I am aware of the current people in the field who continue to expand upon his work. The volume of reading required these days means that is difficult, if not impossible to trace theories from their inception through to their current state and still be able to contribute to the field.

Which is perhaps, obvious to anyone trying to keep up with current research in their field, but also, I think, a little sad.

calm now.

Right. Now that I've had time to calm down, something a tad more reasoned about this Paul Henry fiasco.Then again, it wasn't what Henry himself said yesterday that made me so angry, it was the response from Andi Brotherston, TVNZ's PR person who suggested that I supported Henry's remarks on the basis of me being a New Zealander.

I've had a couple of discussions with people on both sides of the should he go/should he stay debate. They mostly boil down to he has overstepped some mark and thus should vs go firing him is curtailing his right to free speech. I tend to fall into the he should go camp, but I don't think the reasoning has been particularly well enunciated.

Henry has a right to free speech. I'm not sure where the lines are drawn, legally speaking, for hate speech, so I could be wrong, but I'm not sure he overstepped the mark there. Which would mean that legally, he would be allowed to say what he said. Where the should he stay argument falls down is that TVNZ is not required to give Henry a platform from which to speak. removing him from his position as host of a breakfast show, in no way limits him from continuing to say the sort of things he has been saying. thus, firing him does not curtail his right to free speech in any way though it drastically reduces the number of people who might listen. Freedom of speech does guarantee that you will be listened to.

Ellis, TVNZ's CEO finally gets (part of) his response right in this morning's papers. With freedom comes responsibility. With the free reign that TVNZ have given Henry, there comes a responsibility to operate within the ethos of the organization. In this case, it is a state owned organization and has to, at the least, attempt to not transgress the principle the state professes to endorse. In this case, I believe that Henry has crossed the line one to many times for TVNZ to continue backing him or writing his faux pas off as non-PC plain speaking. And thus he should go.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just slightly livid.

Paul Henry. Anyone outside of New Zealand will have no idea. Anyone inside New Zealand knows he's an odious little man, who hosts TVNZ's breakfast program, who can be quite offensive and is quick with a template apology. Still there's no law against being offensive and most of the time he can be dismissed.

Yesterday was a line crossed though. Asking our Prime Minister (who's response was pretty pathetic) if Sir Anand Satyanand was a "real" New Zealander on national TV. Offensive enough, and I think, due cause for TVNZ to let him go. Do they? No. I'm not sure which I find more offensive, Henry's implication that Sir Anand doesn't look like and is thus not a "real" New Zealander or TVNZ coming out and saying that this is what we all think but just don't say.

We know Henry is a dick. But for some PR hack (Andi Brotherston by name) at the state broadcaster to imply that I also agree with this pathetic little racist is just ... infuriating.

It's not often things in New Zealand's public sphere get me worked up. This is one of those times though.

This is not about free speech. There is nothing illegal in what Henry has done. No charges can or should be brought against him. Just because there it is not illegal though, does not mean that the state broadcaster (or anyone for that matter) should meekly accept it and continue to give the man a platform from which to spout. It is possible to disapprove of and refuse to endorse legal statements. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


Via Mind Hacks this morning, a link to an article in, of all places, the wall street journal. An article on ambivalence, which makes me wonder about a couple of things. The meta-question that first occurs to me is to wonder whether I like this because I agree with the idea that a "A certain degree of ambivalence is a sign of maturity" and would like to imagine that I possess both maturity and a certain degree of ambivalence. The answer to that, I think, is probably yes.

The discussion couches ambivalence in terms of being able to see multiple viewpoints and make decisions based on evidence rather than being ideologically driven. As opposed to the more common meaning of ambivalence, being the not caring one way or t'other.

Ambivalence vs ideology then. The next question that springs to mind is how well this trait is represented in various parts of the population. I'm guessing that amongst scientist, it would be relatively high, given that theoretically at least, we are meant to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong. Possibly amongst evangelical ministers or talkback radio listeners, ambivalence might be something that is rarely found. Could there be a change in ones ambivalence as someone gets older? Is there a tendency for older scientists to get stuck in their viewpoints or ministers to question their ideolgy? All interesting questions.