Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A New Democratic Government

     Well, the unthinkable has happened, and my home province of Alberta has actually elected a majority NDP government. I'm really not sure what to think just yet; it's still kind of a shock. For all my talk about engaging in the democratic process, I hadn't realized just how much I had internalized the despair and resignation to the (apparent) inevitability of Progressive Conservative majorities forever and ever. I know that in the big picture this is not quite as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid, but it hits me almost as powerfully, because I live here.
     Our governing party for the last 44 years has not really been progressive or conservative for most of that time. When they came into power under Peter Lougheed (whose son I attended grade school with), they were very progressive in the way they went about conserving our abundant petroleum resources. They established the Heritage Trust Fund, in which to invest the money from oil and gas royalties, in preparation for when the oil ran out. (They replaced the Social Credit party, whose dynasty lasted a mere 36 years.) But over time, they became more and more dominated by business (primarily oil) interests, and they came to take their power for granted.
     By the time I was in high school (and that was thirty years ago!), they were well enough entrenched that a classmate of mine, after hearing from the candidates at a first-time-voters' forum, remarked to me: "Well, I thought the NDP candidate made a lot of sense, but my family always votes Conservative, so..."
     Twenty years later, and another election, I answered my door to the PC candidate for my riding, one of the very few that was at that time held by a Liberal MLA ("Member of Legislative Assembly", the provincial equivalent of a federal Member of Parliament). I mentioned to this candidate my dissatisfaction with the way her party was running things, and she argued that was because Edmonton was underrepresented in caucus. That is, since we had elected non-PC candidates, the government wouldn't listen to us. Consider the logic of that for a moment: If I don't like the way the PCs are running my province, I should vote for them. What, then, should I do if I did like the way they were running things?

     So perhaps you can understand why I had this deeply internalized sense of despair. I talk a lot here about the importance of democratic engagement and getting out there and voting even if you don't really believe your vote will make a difference. I suppose that came from my years of voting without making a difference.

     Now, one of the things that helped keep the PCs in power so long was our ridiculously crude first-past-the-post electoral system, which gives the seat to the candidate who gets the most votes. That doesn't sound like a bad idea by itself, because obviously, you wouldn't want to give it to the candidate who got the fewest votes, and if there are only two parties or candidates, then "the most votes" usually is equivalent to a majority. But in Alberta (as in most places with parliamentary systems) there have usually been more than two candidates on the ballot. Here, we have had the Alberta PCs, the Alberta Liberals, and the New Democratic Party as the three major parties for many years ("major" being a bit generous, given how few seats the Liberals and NDP usually held), joined occasionally by the Greens, making for three parties on the leftish side, against a more or less united PC on the rightish side. What this meant was that the PC could win the seat with 30% of the popular vote, if the other three parties got 23% each, even though 70% of the electorate voted against the PC candidate.
     In recent years, a new party to the right of the PCs appeared, the Wildrose Alliance, so the right's vote was split somewhat. However, in the last election that the PCs won, this actually worked to their advantage, because many centrists were so horrified at the prospect of a Wildrose government that they held their noses and voted PC. And to complicate matters further, another new party, the Alberta Party, has joined the fray, so that the left-of-PC vote was now divided four ways. It was only because Rachel Notley's NDP manage to capture enough momentum to consolidate the anti-PC resentment this time around that we managed to finally oust the PC government. In so doing, we elected an NDP majority, which irrationally scares the hell out of some people who think of the NDP as a bunch of dirty commies.

     So now, at last, we have PC supporters finally complaining about the terrible injustice of the first-past-the-post that allowed the NDP to take a majority of the seats with less than a full majority of the votes. Part of me is sorely tempted to laugh and point and gloat. But the more rational part rings alarm bells at that part of me, because if I, who am not at all a committed pro-NDP partisan, can so easily be tempted to revel in an inherently distorting electoral system, what does that mean for those who ran and were elected as NDP candidates?
     I do not doubt the good faith and idealism of the members of the new NDP government, most of whom have never held elected office before, and I'm delighted to see a change here, particularly one that moves in a direction I've thought we needed to move for a long time. But power is so very seductive, and it has so many sneaky little ways to corrupt even (especially) the most idealistic. I'm not even especially worried about the personal greed and entitlement that did in the last government; that will take some time to take root. I'm more worried about the Very Important Policies that we have so urgently wanted to implement for so many years. As urgently needed as they are, it'd be so very easy to say that electoral form can wait until these more pressing issues are addressed.

     It's always like that, though.  It's never in the interest of the incumbent party to reform the rules that favored them in the last election. There's always something more important, or at least, something easily framed as being more important, because so often there are more immediately urgent matters. But that's exactly why electoral reform needs to be the first priority of the incoming government. Other matters may be more immediately urgent, but if you don't fix the voting system now, you probably won't do it later. And eventually, in time, as the excuses pile up and your fresh new democratic legislature grows into an entitled dynasty complacent in its claim to power for power's sake (as did the PCs and the Socreds before them), it will be impossible to even contemplate changing it.

     Please, then, Ms. Notley: make fixing our electoral system your absolute first priority. Get rid of first-past-the-post. Personally, I'd favour a single transferrable vote, but there are other viable solutions out there. Put our best and brightest to work on the problem. Consult (and listen to) a variety of experts. But fix it. Make every Albertan's vote count.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

On Anti-Discrimination Laws

     I want to talk about why I am in favour of anti-discrimination laws (some of them, anyway), and how they can be justified given my position that the sole purpose of law should be to make us more free. But first, I'm going to do so by revisiting speed limits, which I've written about before.

     On the face of it, a speed limit is an imposition on individual freedom that does not seem to directly protect a greater freedom. True, high speeds might impose a serious liberty-threatening risk on others, but we have tort law for resolving personal wrongs and mandatory vehicle insurance to protect the right of those harmed to compensation. (Not an ideal solution, but a solution that can be refined and improved.) But ignoring for the sake of principle the case of accidents, how does my safely driving at 200 km/h on a public street infringe upon anyone else’s rights, or diminish their freedom?
     Well, it doesn't, at least not directly. As I argued before, people driving at excessive speeds use more than their fair share of the road, forcing everyone else to wait longer for a safe opportunity to merge into traffic, make a left turn or otherwise use the road to get where they want to be. But being forced to wait doesn't exactly violate any individual right. You have to wait for a break in traffic anyway, and it's not as if you have a right to have that break miraculously appear when you want it. 
     No, it's not about you. It's about all of us. Everyone using the road imposes some delays on everyone else, but people who violate traffic rules such as speed limits tend to impose disproportionate delays; for every minute they save themselves, they easily cost the rest of us collectively several minutes or even hours. Hours spent waiting in traffic are hours of constrained liberty, so imposing speed limits is defensible as a liberty-maximizing measure.

     Notice that in most places, there is no minimum speed limit. There may occasionally be people who feel like driving slow, but there is nothing inherently to be gained by doing so; you do not save time by going significantly slower than traffic. So while there's an intrinsic incentive to speeding (I can save myself a few minutes), people pay a natural price in time for going slow. Fines for speeding are meant to counteract the incentive to speed with a (hopefully greater) disincentive.

     So let's consider discrimination. On the face of it, an employer or merchant who discriminates is making a foolish and self-destructive choice, forgoing an otherwise qualified candidate or customer for an arbitrary and irrelevant reason. It's sort of like someone deliberately choosing to drive very slowly; yes, it imposes inconvenience on others, but there's not a lot we can do about people who willingly impose disadvantages on themselves.
     Of course, there’s much more to it than that. If discrimination were just a matter of people making foolish and arbitrary distinctions that go against their own interests, we'd dismiss it without much thought. If you walked into my shop and I refused to do business with you and asked you to leave because my invisible friend is allergic to your shampoo, I'd lose business and you'd go somewhere else, shaking your head at poor silly delusional me. My loss of business would be incentive enough that we wouldn't need to worry about making rules against such silliness.

     But the sort of real-world discrimination that we try to pass laws against is different, because left unchecked it can turn into an actual incentive. If I post a sign outside my shop, boasting of my ethnically clean premises, I might actually gain a market advantage if ethnic bigots represent a market segment with any buying power. Worse, even if actual bigots don't make up an appreciable portion of the market, the perception that they do can become self-reinforcing. Even if I'm not a bigot, I might feel obliged to cater to the bigots whose business I might lose if I don't.
     Consider, for example, the controversy we had in this city a few years ago when a new anti-smoking ordinance was being proposed for all workplaces. Bar owners, almost unanimously protested loudly that they would lose business if their customers couldn't smoke. Whether this was true or not, it was an almost universally held belief, so much so that smokers expected to be able to smoke in any bar they went into, and bar owners were loath to turn them away. Meanwhile, nonsmokers generally were resigned to the fact that if they went to a bar, they'd have to put up with smoke.
     There's an inherent selection bias here. People who wanted to light up a cigarette just would, and people who did not want to didn't light up, but since they were accustomed to other people doing so, they wouldn't say anything. Bar owners rarely heard from potential customers who objected to the smoke enough to stayed away. So there was a powerful perceived incentive to allow smoking, whether or not it was actually in the bar owners' economic interests.

     These perceptions take on a life of their own, and can become very hard to displace. It may even be that nobody at all actually agrees with them, but everybody goes along with them because they believe everyone else agrees with them. It's unfortunate that the Invisible Hand of the market is so poor at weeding out these things, but that's actually to be expected; when clever entrepreneurs find a common misperception to exploit, you can be sure they'll invest heavily in promoting and maintaining that misperception for as long as they can milk it. 

     Will the Invisible Hand persuade the Indiana state legislature to repeal its new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or at least amend the worst bits? It might. I hope so. If it does, then that might actually be some evidence that we're outgrowing the need for antidiscrimination laws. But the fact that they passed it in the first place leads me to suspect we still need them.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Respect the Experts: They're Not Idiots.

     Many years ago, on my old web page, I wrote a piece explaining the twin paradox of special relativity. More recently, I created a YouTube video with the same purpose. Now, I'm not a physicist, and don't claim to have a complete understanding of Einstein's theory at all. I just happened to stumble upon and share a way to think about the twin paradox in a way that made sense to me and that seemed to be consistent with what the experts say about it. (If I'm wrong, of course, I shall be more than happy to have a physicist set me straight on it.)
     But a curious thing happens when you post something about relativity theory on the internet. You start getting email or comments from people who are convinced that Einstein was hopelessly wrong, and who try to explain how. Over the years I've had maybe a half-dozen correspondents on the subject. As I said, I'm not an expert, so I'm really not in a position to debate them about the theory generally, but I'm into thinking and reasoning generally, and I'm very interested in diagnosing the kinds of cognitive errors people (myself included) typically make.

     In this case, I'm intrigued by the ways in which some people naively take issue with the views of the experts. Most of us, I'm guessing, would look at something like relativity or quantum mechanics, admit that we haven't really got a clue, and defer to the guy in the white lab coat scribbling formulae. But the ones who email me about relativity, at least, almost invariably seem to be convinced that they not only understand it, but understand it well enough to refute it. Relativity is just one example; somewhat more common are the creationists who argue passionately about how Darwin got it wrong. More troubling yet are the various conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, sovereign citizens, climate-change-denialists and other similar movements, which not only are hopelessly confused about the actual subject matter but are actively doing real harm to themselves and others through their ignorance.

     Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that one should accept without question whatever The Experts tell us. Sometimes the authorities are wrong, and in any event, we all benefit from healthy dialogue about theories and issues, because even a wrong theory can help bring us to a better understanding of the truth. It's vitally important, in a free and democratic society, that people feel free always to question the conventional wisdom. It's not disagreement with the experts I want to criticize here, but rather methods. There is a right way and a wrong way to be a skeptic.
     In this post, I want to talk about the a particular error that's usually a dead giveaway that someone is not so much a brave dissident challenging the hidebound orthodoxy as a deluded crackpot. Specifically, it amounts to assuming that the experts are unaware of basic "common-sense" facts about their discipline.
     It's a safe assumption that if something is common knowledge, an expert in the field is probably aware of it.  For example, most people know that mercury is very poisonous, as are most heavy metals, so it's reasonable to assume that an expert in chemistry or medicine will also be aware of this basic fact.  I suppose you might find some expert who believes mercury is harmless, but at the very least, even that expert should be aware of the widespread belief that it's poisonous, and be accustomed to having other people disagree on that point. If you tell someone that mercury is poisonous, the expert might say, "Yes, it is," or give an exasperated sigh before patiently explaining how that's a common misconception.
     Yet anti-vaxxers will exclaim in alarm that vaccines contain mercury! MERCURY, for heaven's sake! I'm not sure how they expect physicians to react to this revelation: "Wait, what? I thought thimerasol was just a preservative! Good heavens, there's mercury in it? And mercury is poisonous?Why didn't anyone say something?!"
     Give them some credit. They already knew that mercury is poisonous, and that thimerasol contains mercury, when they decided to use it. Just like a surgeon knows that stabbing someone with a knife is usually bad for them. And yet somehow, the surgeon knowingly goes ahead and cuts people open with a knife in order to treat them, because they know a heck of a lot more about cutting people and putting them back together than a random layperson does.
     That's the thing about experts. They don't just know the really simple obvious stuff that everybody knows; they also know a bunch of complicated stuff that occasionally flies in the face of the obvious overgeneralization. Yes, cutting someone with a knife is usually bad for them, but it can be made less bad with proper preparation, tools and technique, and sometimes it's much less bad than leaving the condition untreated.

     Lots of things are obvious to everyone, expert and non-expert alike. But if we could rely on the obvious in all instances, we wouldn't need experts at all. Experts are those who understand the non-obvious parts of their disciplines as well as the obvious, the things that not everyone knows. So if your criticism of the experts is based on their apparently overlooking something really, really obvious, stop. Do not assume they're idiots for missing what is plain to you, and tell them they're wrong. That is how crackpots act, and rightly or wrongly, you will be dismissed as one.
     Instead, ask. "Wait, I thought mercury was poisonous? Why are you putting it in a vaccine?" Because then they can explain how the toxicity is much less when the mercury is tied up in certain kinds of molecules, and how the quantity involved is so tiny that even if it poses any risk it's far outweighed by the benefits of the vaccination itself, and if you've the time and patience they can go through the data with you and eventually you'll understand it like an actual expert yourself. Or, they might do what they actually did with thimerasol: "Well, it's actually quite safe, but since you're concerned about it, we can replace it with something that doesn't contain mercury."

     Another way to put it is like this: it's okay to disagree with someone, but it's not okay to disrespect them, and assuming someone is so stupid as to be completely unaware of common sense notions of her area study is fundamentally disrespectful, and empirically wrong. Common sense does not trump expert knowledge. You don't have to believe the experts, but don't presume they're idiots.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Root Canal, Cancer, and Terrorism

     Last year, I wrote a bit of satire applying some of the same arguments I've heard about abortion to root canal, in an attempt to show just how silly it is to bring moralizing arguments to bear on medical procedures. If someone needs treatment, they need treatment, and it's too late to argue about whether or not they ought to have engaged in the behaviour that led to that need. You can certainly argue about whether or not they do need the treatment, or whether the procedure itself is morally acceptable, or you can call attention to the risks and side effects involved, but that's a very different thing from saying, "Well, you should have thought of that before you [had sex/ate candy/went bungee-jumping/dressed that way]!"
     Anyway, in that piece, I alluded to this claim that root canal causes cancer, which is apparently still in circulation because a friend forwarded it to me recently. The big, bold headline:

97% of Terminal Cancer Patients Previously Had Root Canal Procedure

especially caught my eye, as of course it was meant to. You might think, given that I had a root canal about thirty years ago, and that I had a cancer that would have been terminal but for timely surgery, that I'd be inclined to find this at least credible. And yet, I'm unimpressed.

     First of all, the statistic isn't actually all that reliable. If you read the article, the source turns out to be a Dr. Issels, who simply recounts that in his 40 years of practice that many of his terminal cancer patients had the procedure. And maybe that many did, although it's just as likely he picked "97%" to emphasize "a lot". This is not a careful clinical study; the actual number could be wildly off.
     Even if the number isn't wildly off, it still doesn't mean anything other than that most of Dr. Issel's terminal cancer patients had had the procedure. There's no reason offered to think that 97% of all terminal cancer patients everywhere have had root canal. There could be any number of reasons why Dr. Issels' patients had a higher than average rate; perhaps he got a lot of referrals from an endodontist friend. Or perhaps the kind of person who puts off going to the dentist until a root canal is necessary is also likely to put off getting checked out for cancer until it's terminal. Or, maybe it's just that anyone who lives long enough to develop cancer has also lived long enough to make the odds of having had a root canal pretty high, as well.

     But that's only part of the problem with this statistic. Let's just assume for the sake of argument that it's completely accurate, that 97% of all terminal cancer patients have had a root canal operation. By itself, this still means nothing, because we have nothing to compare it against: how many people without cancer have had root canals?  According to the article itself, 41,000 root canal procedures are performed in the U.S. every day. (This is probably the source for that claim.) That's 15 million a year, for a population of 300 million people; on average, that means each person has one every 20 years. Obviously, some have more than their share, and many have none, but the point here is that root canals are extremely common. If 97% of everybody has had a root canal, then the fact that 97% of cancer patients have had it should come as no surprise. (Of course, for the reasons in the previous paragraph, I'd actually expect cancer patients to have had a somewhat higher rate of root canal than the population at large, if only because they tend on average to be old enough to have lost their baby teeth.)

     Enough of the statistics. Now some lay-person's background on the science. Root canal is basically a massive filling, where decayed bits of tooth are drilled out and replaced with artificial material. The difference is that in a routine dentist-visit filling, the cavity only goes into the outer layers of the tooth, and can be quickly patched up with a bit of gold or amalgam or whatever it is they use these days. In a root canal, the decay has reached into the softer living tissue inside where there are nerves and blood vessels and especially nerves, which is why ouch. So in a root canal, they have to clean out all that infected softer tissue, and then fill it all in with something to keep the rest of the tooth from breaking in when you chew. In the bad old days, they'd have to just yank out the whole tooth, but this is a way of saving as much of your original dentition as possible.

     So the claim in the article is that bacteria gets into the filled-in core of the tooth, and festers there, releasing toxins into your blood which cause cancer. I should say that this is not by itself completely ridiculous, because there are all sorts of things that can cause cancer, including viral and presumably bacterial infections. There's no reason to rule out the possibility that a long-term infection in the body (whether in a tooth or a bone or a wart or whatever) could promote cancers. And we know that abscesses are really nasty in lots of other ways (which is why we often need root canals in the first place).
     The part that doesn't make much sense, though, is how this is supposed to relate to root canals specifically, especially on the scale implied by the shock-inducing 97% claim. The problem is that if the filled-in tooth canal is sealed off enough to allow anaerobic bacteria to thrive, then it's probably also sealed off enough to keep them and their toxic byproducts away from the bloodstream.
     Moreover, bacteria are like any other living thing: they need energy, which those of us who can't photosynthesize have to get by eating things. So sealing off nasty microbes inside the tiny spaces of a tooth might give them a nice hiding place for a while, but they'd exhaust the available nutrients in there pretty soon, and then they'd starve.
     Of course, there may be just enough circulation of fluids to bring in a little food for the bacteria, to keep them alive, but that kind of bare subsistence infection isn't going to be able to do you much harm, either. The conditions after a root canal are not special, and there are no doubt many little colonies of germs trying to establish a foothold throughout your body at any given time. This is natural, and typically they don't last long, because we have immune systems. A big infection, like in an abscess, can overwhelm the defences, but a microscopic one is a pretty routine event, and at most a successful root canal replaces a huge potential abscess with some negligibly tiny germ hangouts.
     This is the thing that so many health panics don't seem to understand: germs are freaking everywhere. They aren't harmless at all, and they're trying to kill us all the time. But that's no big deal; that's how it's always been, and our immune systems and repair mechanisms are awfully good at what they do. They are more than capable of dealing with a Hole-In-The-Wall gang of bacteria hiding out at the site of a root canal, because they're always dealing with that sort of thing. Whether or not you've ever had a root canal, your immune system is right now dealing with exactly the same kinds of invaders and their associated toxins from some other source.
     The same argument applies to the mercury they once used as a preservative in vaccines, the fluoride in our drinking water, and a host of other unpleasant chemicals. Yes, we should try to minimize our exposure to these things, but when the amount we're worrying about is drowned out in the background noise of what our bodies are used to dealing with, it's time to go worry about something else. We are much better off trying to reduce that background noise than we are obsessing about a trivially small component of it. (Especially when it comes to things like root canal, fluoridation and vaccines, things which are specifically meant to give net health benefits that far outweigh whatever trivially tiny risks they might carry.)

     Which brings me to terrorism. Yes, terrorism exists, but it's really just a particular form of violence. There are, and perhaps always will be, people who believe that violence is a way to solve their problems. Sometimes they just get angry and lose control, or sometimes they coldly calculate that someone's death will bring them an insurance payoff, or sometimes they fall prey to a radical ideology. Whatever the cause, it's bad, but our civilization has developed systems for dealing with violence. People commit crimes, the police track them down, they stand trial, they go to prison. It's not ideal, but it generally works to keep us relatively safe (and it's worth repeating that we live in the least violent time in human history.)    
     The reason we shouldn't worry about terrorism is the same reason we shouldn't worry about getting cancer from a root canal: the actual incremental risk of being hurt or killed by a terrorist is many orders of magnitude lower than your already low risk of being a victim of criminal violence generally. We will do much more to improve our safety from violence, including terrorism, by adopting policies and attitudes which serve to make ours a more just, more compassionate, more connected community, in in which people do not become so alienated and disenfranchised that they turn to violence as a way of affirming their significance.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Law is not Rocket Science

     I would be surprised if there were anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the term "pseudoscience". Although it's often used simply as a pejorative to condemn any claim about the natural world one disagrees with (creationists call evolution pseudoscience, oil company flacks call climate change pseudoscience, etc.) there really is a meaningful distinction to be made between actual science and pseudoscience. Science is not so much a body of knowledge as it is a method of acquiring and testing that knowledge; something is properly said to be pseudoscience when it attempts to establish credibility and authority by adopting the superficial trappings of scientific claims, without actually following scientific methods.
     To some extent, I can understand the appeal of pseudoscience, especially because the subject matter of real science is usually so complex and difficult to understand. When someone speaks confidently about enzymes and antioxidants and leptons and Higgs bosons, it sure sounds like they know what they're talking about, even if we don't, so for most of us just accepting what a pseudoscientist has to say is no different from accepting what a real scientist has to say. We defer to the person who sounds like an expert.
     And the reason science is often so hard for non-experts to understand is that the natural universe was not built for the purpose of being easily understood by us. The only reason we are able to understand as much of it as we do is because our brains, which evolved to solve certain kinds of problems (including some rudimentary physics problems), are also reasonably good at general problem solving. That makes it possible to make sense of physics (we hope), but there's no reason to expect it to be easy. Indeed, when you start getting into areas of physics that are completely outside of our ancestral experience, such as the quantum mechanical realm of the extremely small or the relativistic realm of the extremely fast/massive, the discoveries of modern physics become extraordinarily difficult for our hunter-gatherer brains. So I have some sympathy for those who are taken in by pseudoscience. Science is hard, and so people who don't get it do have a kind of excuse.

     But I have less sympathy for pseudo-law, which may not be a word but is enough of a thing to prompt an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice to compose a lengthy and thorough refutation of what he calls Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments. A common feature of many of these arguments (often promulgated by people calling themselves "sovereign citizens" or "freemen on the land") is that they seem to understand law as being some kind of arcane magic, complete with special and secret incantations. OPCA theories often include bizarre and unnecessarily complex entities, like the following graphic which came across my Facebook feed some months ago:

     This is kind of preposterous. A corporation is an artificial person, a legal fiction, invented and modelled upon the ancient and pre-legal concept of the natural person. Yes, plain old ordinary personhood. You are not a corporation, you are not stock, you are not collateral. You're just a person, and you have been since you were born. There's nothing magical about your social security number (or our Canadian equivalent, the Social Insurance Number). It's just a unique number meant to allow the government to know which John Smith is which for its various administrative purposes. This nonsense about corporate entities is all just ignorant hocus-pocus from people who know just enough legal terminology (and just little enough of its actual meaning) to get themselves hopelessly confused, and then to try to turn that confusion to their advantage.

     To be fair, even lawyers seem to be subject to somewhat superstitious beliefs about the law, particularly when it comes to drafting contracts and other legal documents. There is tremendous risk-aversion, so simply copying the language of previous instruments is perceived as safer than drafting up new language from scratch. That's actually a pretty reasonable strategy most of the time, but it can get a little silly on occasion, especially if one is refusing to change something not because the existing text is exactly what one means, but because one is uncertain what will happen if this or that word is removed.
     For example, the reason many legalese documents include redundant phrasing ("I hereby give, bequeath and donate...") is a legacy of the time after the Norman Conquest, when the Engish nobility spoke French, the commoners spoke English and the people who could read and write spoke Latin. It wasn't that "give" and "donate" had different meanings; it was that the courts wanted to make sure everyone understood the meaning, so they included as many synonyms as possible to ensure that at least one of them would get through. Of course, the adversarial process being what it is, some clever shyster might call attention to one of these words being missing at some point ("Normally, my Lord, in a contract of this sort, one gives, bequeaths and donates the property in question, but clearly here both the latter two words are absent, meaning that the contractor could not have intended to bequeath or donate the property..." so there has always been a kind of pressure against simplification. Lawyers don't want to get into trouble by messing with something that seems to work, even if they don't fully understand why it works. But the lawyer who doesn't understand exactly why a particular contract precedent is the way it is generally isn't stumped by a cosmic mystery, but rather faces an eminently solvable problem she just doesn't have the time or inclination to bother solving.

     That's the difference with science. Science studies the natural world, which doesn't care whether or not we understand it. Law, however, is ultimately about human interactions and how to resolve disputes between humans about what ought to be done. In other words, law by definition must be intelligible by human beings; it cannot be some inscrutable mystery. Sure, no single individual understands all of it, but the very nature of law is such that all of it is human-made reasoning about human choices. Moreover, it is supposed to be transparent and available to everyone; the very notion of a secret law is absurd. There can be secret contracts and proceedings conducted behind closed doors, but a secret law cannot be binding on people who can't know about it.
     So, for example, consider the preposterous claim that some Sovereign Citizen types like to make in Canadian courts. They point to the motto displayed on the wall, "Ad mare usque ad mare" which is Latin for "From sea to sea", and claim that it means the Canadian court is an admiralty court with no jurisdiction on land. What's wrong with this argument, apart from the complete failure to understand what a motto is? Well, it implies there's some kind of secret "real" law that we're all in the dark about, and this secret law is somehow binding upon the courts and prohibits them from exercising authority over those who cite it.
     That isn't how courts work. There may be points of law that the courts take time to understand correctly, but there are no secret laws. In practice, the law really is whatever the court says it is. You absolutely can argue that a court has no jurisdiction, and such arguments are often made, and successfully, too. But here's the thing: you actually have to convince the court, which means if they say they have jurisdiction after you've made your argument, well, too bad. If you think she's wrong, you can appeal to a higher court, but it will be a higher court that decides.

     Don't get me wrong. Law can get complicated, and yes, you probably should talk to an expert (i.e. a lawyer) if you have any questions, and even if you don't think you have any questions, you probably should have some. But a lot of the time, the reason you need a lawyer is not because the law is complicated so much as it is because lawyers are trained to see disputes in a dispassionate, non-partisan way, and when you're in the middle of a dispute it can be very hard to get the emotional distance to be even a little bit objective. The basic principles of law itself are easy, and not at all mysterious.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A challenge to anti-vaxxers

     Today, a friend suggested I google for "vaccine chemicals", and click "feedback" on the boxed link that comes up on top, which as of this writing is this ridiculous monstrosity of stupid. I did, and indicated that the link was "inaccurate", which hopefully will help Google to refine its algoritm in selecting reliable results.

     Now, I realize that calling something stupid isn't particularly constructive, although I'm trying to use the word in a clinical rather than pejorative sense. The reasoning in the linked article really is preposterously deficient and ill-informed, but what that's not what makes it clinically stupid. Ignorance is ubiquitous, after all, but stupidity is something more profoundly debilitating. Ignorance can be treated by learning new facts, but stupidity is a pathological inability to receive and process new information, and here (in boldface italics) is the telltale marker of genuine stupidity in the article:

That's the real purpose of vaccines: Not to "protect children" with any sort of immunity, but to inject the masses with a toxic cocktail of chemicals that cause brain damage and infertility: Mercury, MSG, formaldehyde and aluminum. The whole point of this is to dumb the population down so that nobody has the presence of mind to wake up and start thinking for themselves.
This is precisely why the smartest, most "awake" people still remaining in society today are the very same ones who say NO to vaccines. Only their brains are still intact and operating with some level of awareness.

     Stupidity comes in many forms, some of them genetic and some of them memetic. This is a classic form of memetic stupidity, a kind of ideological immune system designed to shut out any consideration of information that might conflict with the ideology. It's a very common mechanism, found in religious cults, political movements, and as here in crackpot conspiracy theories. It works by selectively filtering out and discrediting any criticism, by positing that criticism itself is inherently suspect. Examples:

  • Creationists sometimes argue that fossil evidence for evolution was placed there by the Devil to lead us astray, or alternatively by God to test our faith, but in either case the evidence must be disregarded because it conflicts with the favoured view. More broadly, some fundamentalists claim that all criticism comes directly from Satan.
  • In an interesting twist on this phenomenon, Scientologists claim that people only ever criticize Scientology in order to divert attention from their own crimes, and so in addition to distracting Scientologists away from the substance of  criticism towards the investigation of the critics, even more perniciously it trains them to scrupulously avoid thinking negative thoughts themselves about Scientology for fear of being a critic, and thus a criminal.
  • In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler asserts that only a "born weakling" would dispute his claims about race and evolution, and then only because of his "feebler nature and narrower mind". In other words, demonstrate your strong mind and independent will by accepting without question what this guy says.
  • "That's just what they want you to think!" is the cry of every conspiracy theorist, especially those who are fond of the "false flag" concept, the idea that any incident that might go to support the claims of their opponents is actually faked by their opponents in order to discredit them. There are gun nuts (and in this case, yeah, the term is apropos) who claim the Sandy Hook shooting was faked to raise support for gun laws, and other nuts who claim 9/11 was carried out by the White House to raise support for invading Iraq. Now, while I'm not saying there's no such thing as a real false flag (the most famous probably being attempt to provoke a war between the medieval kingdoms of Florin and Guilder), seeing everything as a false flag is a convenient way to discredit absolutely anything that might not support your pet theory.

     So, look again at what Natural News is claiming about people who support and people who oppose vaccines, and consider what that would mean for the ability to receive, process and formulate unbiased conclusions based on new data. If you accept that non-vaccinated people are the "smartest, most awake" people and that vaccinated people are all brainwashed dupes, then you're automatically going to disregard what any pro-vaccine person has to say. Even if an intelligent unvaccinated person takes a careful objective look at all the available evidence and decides that vaccination is a good idea, by the time they talk to you to explain their conclusions they've probably already been vaccinated and you can dismiss them on that basis. In other words, the means by which you might otherwise obtain and process useful information to make up your own mind has already been sabotaged by this claim that unvaccinated people are smarter and more "awake" than vaccinated people

     But let's leave that aside. I'm going to propose a way to actually put that claim to the test. If you're going to claim that unvaccinated people are "the smartest, most awake" people, well, that's a pretty ambitious claim, because "smart" is a pretty big word. When we describe someone as "smart", we don't just mean that they don't believe in vaccines; we mean that they have good general cognitive abilities: they think and learn and understand and solve problems well. After all, if you're trying to argue that smart people avoid vaccines, then you must mean that the decision to avoid vaccines is the result of better and more informed thinking than the decision to be vaccinated. And obviously, if the motive in promoting vaccines is to dumb down the population into compliant sheeple, then you're claiming it's not just the ability to reject vaccines that is affected; it should also affect the ability to think critically about government policies on the environment or crime or the economy or international relations or anything else. In other words, you're claiming that non-vaccinated people are generally smarter, not just making the fortuitously correct choice about vaccines.

     So bring it on, then. Show me that anti-vaxxers are actually smarter on a variety of issues other than vaccination. Show me that they're genuinely more independent thinkers, that they have a better understanding of other issues, and better problem-solving skills. Show me that they should pay lower car insurance premiums because they make better decisions while driving. 
     Or hey, let's even make this personal. You think you're smarter than me? Seriously, I'm asking. I've had most of the vaccinations that have been available for someone of my age, and I was born in 1965.  I get my flu shot most years, and I've also been vaccinated against Hepatitis B. Oh, and I've also been through chemotherapy for colon cancer, a regimen of some really nasty chemicals that are decidedly bad for you. So by rights, I ought to be a sitting duck for your towering unvaccinated intellect. You should be able to dance rhetorical circles around me, gracefully refuting my pathetically flawed fallacious arguments.
     Sure, I may think I've made carefully considered and reasonably well-informed decisions about my health care. I may think I disagree vehemently with some of the asinine policies of my government, and I may think I write letters to my MP and argue with my fellow citizens, but if you're right, I'm just a brainwashed dupe, going along with the Powers That Be. You should be able to crush me with your enlightened sagacity. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hate and Punishment

     Three days ago, this video was uploaded by one Bradley Knudson, in which he shares his experience in dealing with some bullying of his adopted daughter by some of her classmates, a pair of twins. He attempted to talk about this with Deron Puro, the father of the twins, who apparently quite approved of their behaviour, and even left a voicemail calling Mr. Knudson a "nigger-lover". Unable to find any common ground upon which to reach an agreement, Mr. Knudson at one point threatened to take his case to social media, which Mr. Puro encouraged him to do. Within a couple of days, the firm for which Mr. Puro had been a contractor terminated their association: in essence, he lost his job, almost certainly as a consequence of his behaviour.
     Now, I'll confess that I felt a visceral bit of karmic satisfaction when I learned of the consequences for Mr. Puro. And yet, at the same time, a warning bell went off in my conscience. After all, this fellow had been punished for expressing an unpopular opinion, and in a month of Je suis Charlie, something seems a bit off about celebrating such an outcome, even if I might believe he fully deserved it (which I do). What someone deserves is not relevant to the principle I hold sacred: that people should be free to express their opinions (including and especially if those opinions are unpopular or even widely recognized as obviously false) without fear of retaliation. The way we defeat dangerous or stupid ideas in a free society is by countering them with good ideas and arguments, not by punishing the people who hold them. Punishment is not an argument, and indeed it's only likely to harden Mr. Puro's belief; no doubt he will blame Mr. Knudson for getting him fired, rather than questioning his own beliefs.

     We do not know, though, exactly why Mr. Puro was fired. It's important, after all, to bear in mind that not all unpleasant consequences are actually punishment. Getting hit by a car is not punishment for failing to look both ways before crossing the street, because no one would say that one who fails to look both ways has committed a grave moral evil that deserves such harsh suffering. It's only punishment if it happens because someone thinks you deserve it.
     It's conceivable (and maybe even likely) that Mr. Puro's employer intended to punish his hateful beliefs by firing him, and if that's the case then I although I'm sympathetic and would be tempted to do the same thing, I must reluctantly condemn it, because I don't believe in punishing people for their beliefs.
     But it is also entirely possible that this was just a prudent business decision. Nobody wants to do business with someone they think is a rude bigot, and they might well have decided that being associated with Mr. Puro was just bad for business. Sorry, pal. Nothing personal, but we can't have you around here anymore, or we'll lose all our customers. It's just business.

     That doesn't put my conscience at ease, though, because exactly that reasoning is what perpetuates racism. It wasn't that long ago that black people would not be served in certain restaurants. The owners of those restaurants might -- or might not -- have personally hated blacks, but if they perceived that a significant number of their regular customers did, then refusing to serve blacks might very well have been a prudent business decision. Sorry, pal. Personally, I love black people, but if I serve you, I'll lose my more lucrative customers. It's just business.
     The point is that the coercive power of the customers, the market, society at large, to compel a restaurant to discriminate against black customers is exactly the same power brought to bear on Mr. Puro's employer. The fact that the common wisdom now, in this enlightened era of racial harmony*, is that racism is bad is of little comfort; not so long ago, the "common wisdom" was that whites and blacks ought have nothing to do with one another.

     So I am not comfortable with the situation. I do not fault Mr. Knudson for his video, for making public Mr. Puro's bigotry -- on the contrary, I think he absolutely did the right thing and handled things in an exemplary manner. I don't even fault Mr. Puro's employer for terminating his contract. That probaby was the right business decision to make, though that has the unfortunate implication that yes, in fact, a restaurant owner who chose to discriminate was also doing the right thing, at least from a business perspective. I'd like to say they ought to have courageously defied the market and served everyone, but there's a reason we recognize courage as a rare and treasured virtue: not everyone has enough of it. As well, asking someone to sacrifice not just his own financial well being but also that of his children is no small thing.

     I regret that Mr. Puro's lost his livelihood, and I hope he finds new work, although I expect he's in for some challenges there; I probably wouldn't want to hire him, either. The fact is, from what little I know of him, he sounds like an awful person, disrespectful and rude, irresponsible and not very bright. As unpleasant as that makes him to others, let's not lose sight of what a huge handicap it is for him, and doubly so because of the Dunning-Kruger effect; he likely lacks the ability to recognize and thus correct his own errors. His hardship, though entirely self-inflicted (and probably deserved), is still a tragedy, and we should not revel in it.

*May not be available in your area.