the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.


At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.


The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

an open letter to a homeopath

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B_zXQldU0AAfdTR.jpg-largeWhen I was in Canberra last year I came across an article in the Canberra Weekly, written by one Wesley Smith, director of the ‘Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre’ in Manuka, a Canberra suburb. It was called ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’, and you can probably guess the rest.

I tore out the article, vaguely intending to do something about it, and promptly forgot about it, but having rediscovered it today, I’m thinking it’s not too late.  An online version of Mr Smith’s (he’s not a doctor) article is here. On this centre’s website, I note that it advertises ‘holistic’ wellness (see my recent post), and offers ‘acupuncture, herbal medicine, kinesiology, naturopathy, remedial massage, meditation and yoga’ as some of its treatments – and reading the bios of Wesley’s quite large team tells me that cupping, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), dry needling and ‘soft tissue therapy’ are also on offer, though I note that nowhere in these extensive bios is there any mention of a medical degree. The only mention of qualifications is in Wesley’s own bio – he has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Acupuncture from the University of Technology, Sydney (shame on the institution). But this gladbag of BS is too large to deal with, though it does indicate the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired. I’ll just keep to homeopathy, with maybe a dash of acupuncture (I can’t help myself).

So here’s a letter, which I’ll send by email to Mr Wesley Smith. It may mark the beginning of a rich relationship.

Dear Mr Smith

In reference to your article ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’ published in the Canberra Weekly some time last year, I would like to point out some problems with your analysis of the situation with homeopathy.

Firstly, as you know, the NHMRC has now completed its review on homeopathy and its findings were made available online in March 2015. They are clear: there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective. The review also states that

People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.

Having visited your website and read your biography, I’ve found that you’re not on the APHRA list of registered health practitioners. I could check out your team, but as I notice that no medical qualifications are mentioned for any of them, it’s probably reasonable to assume that none of them are in fact registered health practitioners.

I find it strange that in your summary of homeopathy in your article, which is reasonably accurate as far as it goes, you describe its principles as ‘challenging’, and suggest that it would be particularly so for those with some knowledge of basic chemistry and ‘a lack of imagination’.

While imaginative insight is indeed required to postulate a new theory, as with Maxwell’s insight about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, Einstein’s insight about the relationship between space and time, and Darwin’s insights about competition and variation, the really hard work involves proving the theory to be true, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Maxwell and Einstein had to develop accurate, watertight, explanatory equations as proofs of their theories, to enable them to be tested ad infinitum by others. Newton developed a whole mathematical calculus, which has since become one of the most valuable tools available to science, in order to precisely calculate his revolutionary laws of motion. Darwin devoted a whole lifetime to providing detailed evidence of adaptive development in a wide variety of species…

Yet it’s remarkable how little work has been done, especially by self-proclaimed homeopaths, to provide proofs of the efficacy of homeopathy. Imagination is hardly sufficient. It seems that, out of exasperation, as well as a sense of ‘duty of care’, the NHMRC, representing medical professionals, has decided to take on this proof-providing responsibility, and the results have been damning, but unsurprising to any one with a scientific bent and a respect for evidence.

You’ve defended homeopathy by claiming there ‘must be’ hundreds of thousands of Australians who’ve been ‘astounded’ at how their bruises respond to homeopathic arnica. Surely you can’t expect any medically trained person to accept such claims as evidence. It would be like accepting someone’s word that hundreds of thousands of people have had their prayers answered by their god, therefore their god really exists and really does answer prayers. In order for such claims to be counted as evidence – as you well know – information would have to be gathered about this multitude of individuals, the nature of their ‘bruises’, and the mechanism by which the bruises responded to the treatment. You would think that homeopaths the world over would be enormously interested in how arnica, in such infinitesimally minute doses, has this miraculously curative effect. The fact is surely sensational and would revolutionise the treatment of bruising – essentially, internal haemorrhaging – around the world, saving millions of lives. Yet homeopaths appear not to have the slightest interest in causal mechanisms. They’re only interested in claimed effects. There are no laboratories working on how homeopathic treatments work, in testing and developing their theoretical underpinnings, in finding further applications for these truly extraordinary ‘principles’. Why ever not? How can homeopaths be so irresponsible? So completely incurious?

You claim that it’s impossible to dismiss the curative effects of this treatment as due to placebo. In other words, you know that it works. That’s fantastic news, now all you have to do is prove it. I cannot believe that this would be difficult for you, since you claim that hundreds of thousands of Australians (and presumably hundreds of millions worldwide) are astounded at the treatment’s efficacy. Considering this, you must be astounded, in your turn, at the NHMRC’s final report. How could they have got it so wrong? Furthermore, how is it that in Britain a study by Edzard Ernst (himself a professor of complementary medicine), which made a systematic review of the Cochrane Database of reviews (the Cochrane Database being justly famous for its rigour), found, again, that homeopathy had no discernible effect beyond placebo? Is there a conspiracy happening here? You seem to be suggesting as much when you write of the huge profits for pharmaceutical companies in successfully trialling their products, compared to the difficulties for poor homeopaths. But homeopaths could surely unite, with each other and with these millions of delighted clients, to provide the proof you need in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trials with large sample sizes. After all, you yourself have testified that the treatment is nothing short of sensational. It would surely haver wider application than simply healing bruises. If these principles really work, why wouldn’t they be effective for curing cancer, ebola, malaria, or any other scourge to humanity? The benefits would be such that you would be criminally negligent not to pool your resources and provide these proofs for humanity’s sake. There would certainly be a Nobel Prize for medicine in it for you if you were to organise the trials that led to these revolutionary cures,  not to mention eternal fame and the gratitude of billions…

But let’s not get carried away. The ‘revolution’ of homeopathy has been around for over two hundred years, and it has never progressed beyond the French characterisation of it as médicine douce, the kind of medicine you take when you don’t need medicine, our fabulous immune system being what it is. If it really was as effective as you claim, pharmaceutical companies would have financed the research trials in a jiff, thereby turning their millions of dollars of profits into billions. Not to mention the fact that if homeopathic ‘principles’ worked, much of the science we know would be up-ended, and most of our modern physics and chemistry would have to be scrapped.

The real situation is as described by Dr Steven Novella at Science-based medicine:


… proponents of homeopathy would have the world believe that one man, Samuel Hahnemann, stumbled upon a fantastic secret two centuries ago (actually, multiple secrets) that defy scientific explanation, have been ignored by 200 years of scientific progress, and yet to this day would turn our scientific understanding of the world upside down. For some reason, however, believers just can’t seem to produce any convincing evidence for any of it, not even that homeopathic products have any properties at all, let alone clinical efficacy. After 200 years all they can produce are endless excuses and demands for more research.

And what do we have in your article, Mr Smith? In its last lines, true to form, you make excuses about (200 plus years of) limited funding, and demands for more research. QED.

Written by stewart henderson

April 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 2

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bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

The Darwin book continues to be a rollicking good read, I’m into the post Origin period, where shit hits the fans and Darwin’s fans, led by that young Turkish bulldog Tommy Huxley, shovel shit on the opposition, captained by soapy Sam Wilberforce and the brains of high Anglicanism, Dicky Owen – the most gifted naturalist of his age, to be fair. What’s fascinating is that the Origin precipitated the last great politico-religious struggle in England, a very drawn-out affair which crossed the Atlantic and continues in the US to this day, but in England it has been a slow-acting poison to conservative Anglicanism. Liberal Anglicanism, essentially a bridge to atheism, has swallowed natural selection with a sort of diffident, dumb grace, flexible as to their god’s ever-changing plan. As a semi-student of history though, I can well understand Darwin’s own diffidence about publicizing his theory. It was bad enough for the time, had it been a century earlier (impossible of course given the eighteenth century state of knowledge) he would absolutely have been martyred for it. As it was, during the couple of decades between formulating his theory and going public, the public, especially the disaffected Chartist ‘rabble’, had become increasingly keen for a weapon to strike down the High Clergy and the swanningly civilised aristos, and apes for ancestors, monkeys for uncles, even gorillas for girlfriends, fitted the bill perfectly. Darwin, of course, presented his case as dispassionately as humanly possible, with nary a mention of human descent, and afterwards kept his head down in Downe, obsessing over pigeons and orchids and sexual selection (actually chipping away very effectively at the god-did-it argument), while Tommy Huxley, Joe Hooker and co fought the good Darwinian battle in the big smoke with consummate derring-do (don’t believe a word of this by the way, as if you would). Darwin was anything but a fighter – he had vomiting fits at the very thought of confrontation – but in his oddly reclusive way he was always the leader, because unlike many of his supporters, even the closest ones, he knew he was right. His aim, his obsession, with all his apparently arcane researches, was to keep adding to the mountain of evidence.

There are many intriguing things about Darwin. He was vain but genuinely humble, highly-strung and emotional but profoundly analytical, a hypochondriac and yet a real invalid for stretches of his life, and of course a revolutionary who hated revolutionaries. As a young, footloose, disgustingly well-heeled intellectual, he could think of nothing better than to make a pleasant living as a naturalist-clergyman, like many a gentleman among his family’s connections. By his career’s end, the naturalist-clergyman was becoming a relic, probably more due to his own productions than to any other cause.

The founding father of eugenics, atheism, Nazism, bestiality and please don’t get me started


And this leads to a consideration of his most profound impact, outside the confines of science, what makes him the most controversial and contested, and in some circles reviled, figure of the past two hundred years, and that is his, and his theory’s, complete denial of human specialness. A specialness which is at the heart of the Abrahamic religions, without which not.

This recognition of human relatedness to other species, the bringing of humans back to the pack, wasn’t an anti-Christian urge by any means, it was more a result of his obsessive interest in solving the problems of adaptation and basic survival of creatures such as barnacles, earthworms and pigeons. This obsession gave him great respect for the sometimes barely fathomable complexity and ingenuity of even the most ‘basic’ life-forms. He saw human complexity as a continuation of that adaptive process, but biologists and many other scientists were, at that time, unable to shake off notions of human exceptionality. Owen, Wallace, Luis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart and others of Darwin’s time, all had qualms about, or simply rejected outright, the implications for humanity of Darwinian natural selection, and these represented the scientific mainstream, essentially. Darwin himself was able to weather the storm through the support of strong allies such as Hooker and Huxley, his own ability to avoid and deflect controversy, his inaccessibility at Downe, his long-suffering but profoundly loyal wife, and his habit of retreating into the messy fine detail of his studies. He also, through voluminous correspondence – he would’ve loved the world of email and Facebook – built up a huge network of scientific boffins, breeders and farmers, with whom he was unfailingly polite and charming while exploiting their specialist knowledge. So he was able to adapt very well to the challenges thrown at him.



I’m writing here as if delivering a lecture, and I do wish I could reach more people. I don’t have too many contacts with a penchant for science, or for history, but then I don’t have many contacts. But enough complaining (mea culpa after all), I note that the vaccination controversy drags on, with too many people standing on their ‘right’ to not vaccinate their children, which shows up the problems with the rights concept, which I’ve always considered artificial but a useful fiction which has helped to build a more humane global society, and speaking of globalism the battle to save the lives of Australians under the death penalty is almost over, but we should continue the battle to the end because it’s a bad law and national sovereignty be damned, and that should be the same for any national under any national or state law. Which makes me wonder, I’m not a lawyer, but what would happen if an Australian citizen was charged with a capital offence and sentenced to death in the notorious US state of Texas? Maybe they only kill US citizens, that’d keep them out of international trouble, but what we need to keep working on is an international code of ethics and an international law and I do think we’re creeping towards it slowly slowly.

capital punishment - green doesn't do it, red does, and yellow's moving away

capital punishment – green doesn’t do it, red does, and yellow’s moving away

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2015 at 6:53 am

the myth of holistic medicine

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It does get my goat rather that so-called naturopaths, in spite of having varied and often contradictory therapies, love to call themselves practitioners of holistic medicine. It’s a feel-good term that, like spirituality, seems to make a virtue of its own vagueness. Of course, holistic medicine can be defined in a superficial sense – it’s treating the whole person, right? But how does that work in reality, and how do naturopaths manage it?

Well, the obvious answer is, they don’t. It’s nothing more than a propaganda term.

Clearly, holistic, whole-person treatment would be fabulous if it could be achieved, but it would entail not only knowing the whole anatomy and physiology of the client, but her psychology and her entire medical history from birth, and even before. Would there be any other way of treating ‘the whole person’?

Personalised medicine may in fact become the way of the future – I’ve heard as much – but that has nothing to do with naturopathy. That has to do with science – your personal microbiome, your heart rhythms, your cholesterol, your triglycerides, your lung function, your bowel movements, your bone density (not to mention your sequenced genome), taking more responsibility for those things as far as is possible and in co-operation with healthcare providers. Naturopathy is something else altogether – it’s about herbs instead of pills (unless they’re homeopathic), ‘age-old’ treatments such as reflexology and TCM rather than invasive tests and vaccinations, getting in tune with or detoxifying your body rather than taking impersonal prescriptions to your local impersonal pharmacist.

So the question is – how did taking an entirely chemical herbal treatment from a naturopath come to seem more holistic than taking a chemical such as theophylline prescribed by your specialist?

I don’t see how a naturopath would or could treat a client as a ‘whole person’ any more than a conventional GP could. Limited info, limited time, it’s the same whether your treatments are science-based or traditional. But I do know at least one happy client who swears by her naturopath, who really does treat the whole person, unlike the medical establishment, according to her. I haven’t pressed her to explain this, but I have my own nasty theory. The woman is clearly obese, and wouldn’t take kindly to being told so, and she’s found a practitioner whose greatest skill is to tell her everything but what she most needs to hear. At last, someone who really understands her, who really listens and accepts her own expertise about her own body. And it must be said that many doctors, full to the brim of years and years of training and practice, do sometimes treat their clients in an offhand or specimen-like way. The psychological effects of healthcare practice are surely underestimated. So many people, but especially the unhealthy, want to be seen as, or made, whole. ‘Holistic medicine’ therefore, makes for a very effective propaganda label.

Yet many treatments that eagerly make use of the holistic banner are about as far from being individualised as can be imagined.

Acupuncture supposedly manipulates your ‘chi’ or ‘qi’, a system of energy flow that, if it existed, could be individualised to the client. Some clients might have a different chi from others, just as we have different blood types, different hormonal levels, different cholesterol levels, different insulin levels, etc, all of which can be measured. But acupuncturists don’t measure our chi levels and give us a read-out. Why ever not? Surely that would be the holistic, personalised thing to do. The fact is, nobody, in the supposedly thousands of years of acupunctural history, has ever thought to isolate this energy force and describe its wave function or the molecules or particles associated with its action. Nobody has even shown the slightest curiosity about the physical properties of what is advertised as a fundamental energy source in humans and perhaps all other living things. That’s fucking amazing – the only amazing thing I can say about acupuncture. Yet, apparently, there are particular points in the body where chi is more abundant, and that’s where you should stick your needles, and at a certain depth, otherwise you won’t be in touch with the chi. So acupuncture depends entirely upon chi being a physical, measurable entity…

Say no more. Your chi can’t be personalised and made a part of your whole-person profile because it doesn’t exist.

Homeopathy also likes to travel under the holistic banner, and you’ll find it advertised in all those brochures featuring glowingly healthy individuals, often dressed in white, meditating or staring lovingly at the sky-spirits. The trouble is, homeopathic treatments are designed to treat the illness, not the individual. The bogus ‘law of similars’ involves swallowing pills which are supposed to contain material ‘like’ whatever it was that made you sick. If that doesn’t sound very scientific, don’t blame me. It’s obviously a problem if you don’t know what made you sick, but the solution is simple. Just pay attention to your symptoms – say itchy skin or funny-coloured urine – and take pills containing a substance that produces similar symptoms. But hang on, won’t that just make you more sick? No, not at all, because the offending substance will be diluted to infinitesimal proportions. Okay, but won’t that render it useless? Ah but you’re clearly unaware of the ‘law of infinitesimals’ which defines a substance as increasing in potency the more it’s diluted. Welcome to the world of homeopathy, where the more truth is watered down, the more obviously true it becomes.

But the point I wanted to make here, before becoming entranced by the homeopathic mindset, was a simple one. Far from treating clients as ‘whole people’, it is solely concerned with physical symptoms. A homeopathic treatment would work just as well on a horse or a hedgehog as on a human. The client’s humanity, let alone her particular history or psychological make-up, isn’t a factor. It’s as far removed from holistic medicine as you can get.

I could go on – reflexology, iridology, reiki, chiropractic – these are all bogus, and the fact that they all jump eagerly onto the holistic bandwagon is further evidence of their crappiness. Holistic medicine is an impossible ideal, though personalised medicine, where you take personal responsibility to educate yourself about and keep records of your own health and physical maintenance, in collaboration with health specialists, is a great way to go. And that involves a lot more than just holding hands in a smiley circle.

Written by stewart henderson

March 28, 2015 at 12:38 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.

the most absolute way to lose credibility

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now I know not buy a used car from this guy

now I know not buy a used car from this guy

Daniel Dennett, in his most recent writings, excerpted in the second issue of The new philosopher (a mag which will be a part of my regular reading from now on) made this interesting point:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence.

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning).

Dennett goes on to prove the point with some examples. He performs a useful service here, for “surely” and similar terms like “clearly” seem anodyne enough to pass under our radar. The term “absolutely, not so, and as such, it’s far less sophisticated. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signposts for BS that we have, and it should send any worthwhile skeptic’s antennae bouncing off the ceiling. The anti-vaccination guru screams that vaccination is absolutely the worst medical intervention in human history, the creationist that evilution is absolutely contrary to their god’s plan, and the climate-change denier asseverates that there’s absolutely no credible evidence…

Step no further, for here lurks the big bad demon of absolutely committed ideology. It’s not the sort of term you read in the philosophical articles Dennett has been targeting, but of course it’s everywhere on the internet, and in the generally unsophisticated arena of political debate.

So I was amused to hear our current human rights commissioner Tim Wilson falling into the trap, like a drunken stumblebum falling off a well-signposted cliff. Wilson was on a panel of the ABC’s current affairs program The drum, and one of the topics discussed was the impact that the anti-vaccination movement was having on the incidence of measles in the USA. Wilson’s response was essentially pro-science, and so condemnatory of the anti-vaccination trend, though he also invoked the interesting argument that this was to protect children, while adults should be free to be as anti-science as they liked, and presumably free to promote the kind of anti-science agenda that’s causing all the problems in the first place.

But while it’s a thorny question as to whether or not good science should be enforced in some way, it was Wilson’s response to another panel commentator that really tickled me. The commentator pointed out the parallels between the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers – a fairly obvious point, I would’ve thought – and Wilson jumped in with the claim that ‘there are absolutely no parallels…’

Considering the fairly obvious parallels, Wilson’s remark (which he wasn’t able to elaborate on due to to it being made just as the final credits were about to roll), was a massive red flag, which immediately prompted me to check his bonafides on anthropogenic global warming.

But before checking out Wilson, let me state the parallels. First, both the vaccination debate and the AGW debate are loud and passionate. They also both exhibit the age-old truism that there’s an inverse relation between passionately-held positions and knowledge of the subject. Third and most important, they are both debates over what is essentially settled science. In the case of vaccination, the science tells us that vaccinations have led to the prevention and reduction of multiple diseases around the world over many decades, and that the negative effects of vaccination, if any, are far outweighed by the lives saved and the suffering minimised. In the case of AGW, climate scientists are in consensus that the globe is experiencing a warming event, and that this warming event, as measured through atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, is being significantly contributed to by human activity, and emissions of CO2 in particular.

Wilson’s impressive resumé here tells me that he’s ‘currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University’ and that he’s an ‘international public policy analyst specialising in international trade, health, intellectual property and climate change policy’, so he’s presumably well acquainted with climate science, which makes his ‘absolutely’ claim all the more odd. Digging deeper though, we find that for some time he was the policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a well-known free market think tank. Free marketeers are not always keen on accepting AGW, as it tends to interfere with business…

Wilson himself has been pretty careful about his public comments on AGW – at least I can’t find any outrageously silly remarks from him, but in 2010, while he was the IPA’s director of climate change policy, the organisation brought out a publication called Climate change: the facts, which is largely anti-climate science propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact that none of the contributors agree with the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, i.e. that AGW is a serious problem that we need to act upon. Some of the authors accept AGW but minimise its extent and its negative effects while others simply deny its existence. The publication includes as authors the wholly discredited Ian Plimer, and the quite literally insane Christopher Monckton, who has no scientific training whatsoever. It also includes ‘old guard’ scientists such as Garth Partridge, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter and William Kininmouth, all well into their seventies, and with links to the fossil fuel industries. One contributor, Willie Soon, has since been found to be a hireling of the fossil fuel lobby, to the tune of over $1 million. Others, such as Nigel Lawson, the eighty-something-year-old ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, just make the publication look more embarrassingly irrelevant than it might have been for propaganda purposes. One has to wonder why the book was published – it must surely have harmed the climate deniers’ cause amongst the fence-sitters at whom it was presumably targeted.

The quality of the work can be judged by its brief introduction, written by John Roskam, current executive director of the IPA. Take this excerpt:

We don’t believe ‘the science is settled’. As a think tank committed to the ideals of free and open enquiry and debate we are not afraid to stand against the mainstream of prevailing elite opinion.

Why is the word elite in there, in a book supposedly dedicated to debating the facts? Scientists are always debating, criticising each other’s published work, suggesting alternative interpretations of raw data – that’s a standard scientific process. Skepticism as to results is a sine qua non of scientific enquiry. But they never describe those they disagree with as elites. That would suggest that something else was at play. It seems particularly inappropriate when the writers themselves are Lords, ex-leaders of government, and linked to some of the world’s largest corporations, while those accused of elitism are usually living on an unreliable stream of grants and scholarships.

Welcome, though, to the world of climate change denial, which, far from presenting alternative facts, is largely fact-free. Although I’ve not read Climate change: the facts, I expect it will present the same variety of views, many of them contradicting each other, that Naomi Klein describes in the first chapter of her book on the politics of climate change, This changes everything. Her description – which hits you like an icy cold shower – is of a conference dedicated to climate change denial run by the USA’s Heartland Institute, another right-wing think tank, though much bigger and more bullish than the IPA. And surprise surprise, a number of the Australian book’s contributors were speakers at that conference. As it turns out, right-wing think tanks are almost solely responsible for the slew of anti-AGW propaganda that assails us today, and of all the contentious scientific issues, this one divides most neatly along politico-ideological lines.

So this helps to explain why Tim Wilson says he finds ‘absolutely no parallels’ between AGW and the vaccination ‘debate’. For him, though not for climate scientists, the science is not settled. But, being educated on the matter, he also knows that what he wants to be true, really isn’t. So, to cover what he knows to be bullshit, he resorts, quite unthinkingly, to the word ‘absolutely’. What a fine mess bad faith gets people into, and how painfully obvious it all is.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.


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