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 excused 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.