Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Why I can't be a slave owner

It is impossible for me to be a slave owner.
You see, slavery can only exist where there is a power imbalance resulting in systematic oppression.
And historically we British have been enslaved, invaded, conquered etc. multiple times, so we must have been the victims of systematic oppression. And as oppressed victims we cannot possible oppress and victimise others - we obviously don't have the power to do that or we couldn't have been oppressed victims ourselves.
So, ok, I own this group of people, they are my property, and have no rights, but they cannot by be slaves and I cannot be a slave owner.

(Just to be clear, this isn't real - I don't own anyone. I'm making fun of ideas like women not being able to be sexist, or minority groups not being able to be racist. I know it should be obvious, but this is the internet...)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Probability of "mission creep" in assisted suicide/euthanasia laws - a la Unwin

In 2003 Steven P Unwin (The Probability of God) tried to use Bayesian probabilities to calculate the probability of the existence of god.
Unwin starts with a value of 50% representing maximum ignorance, or to put it another way the value BEFORE examining ANY evidence.
This starting point seems to confuse many people, they tend to say "but the probability isn't 50%" or "it's a fallacy to assume equal probability", not realising that the starting point is not the actual probability, its merely a neutral starting point on which to project the evidence and observe its effects.
There is a video which I've seen linked to on twitter as an example of the foolishness of using 50% as a starting value, but ironically (or not, depending on the culturally specific value you place on that word) it actually illustrates the way Unwin's method works - it features estimates of a riot happening in a small American town, the first character doesn't stop to consider any evidence and just says that there are two possibilities, either it happens or it doesn't, so it's 50%, and the second character then starts to reference evidence to show that the probability is not 50%. An so it is with Unwin's method, you start with maximum uncertainty, then you examine the evidence a bit at a time, and each piece moves you away from the starting value towards the final/actual value.
The formula looks like this:

Pafter =      Pbefore x D                           
                Pbefore x D + 100% - Pbefore

The Pafter for each piece of evidence becoming the Pbefore for the next piece.
D is the area where problems start to arise, not with the math, but with (as Unwin himself notes) the subjective nature of D.
D is 10 for evidence which is much more likely to be produced if god exists, 2 for slightly more likely, 1 for even, 0.5 for slightly less likely, and 0.1 for much less likely.
So, for instance, Unwin gives a value of 10 the "recognition of goodness", but that is an example of subjective bias since it can be explained adequately from an evolutionary perspective as well as from most other religions as well, so that value should really be a 1.
So the problem is that if your evaluation of the evidence is subject to confirmation bias, as it will most likely be for anyone who already has an emotional commitment to one side of an issue, all you will do is put numbers onto your bias.
It may however yet be useful for those who have not made up their minds and for those rare individuals who can avoid any bias in their evaluations (remembering the quote "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool"), and of course bearing in mind that if you use a an overview of the evidence on one side and go into massive detail for the evidence for the other side that will skew the result as well.

Bearing all this in mind then, let us see if we can produce a probability of  "mission creep" in assisted suicide/euthanasia legislation.
D = 10 for much more likely that mission creep will happen, etc.
To save time and space I'll be using a broad overview of the evidence.

Pbefore 50%

1. Some degree of mission creep has happened in every one of the states that have already introduced such laws.
If the probability were very low (0.1D, lets call it 10%) the  chances of all 4 would be 0.0001
If slightly low (0.5D, call it 40%) the chances of all 4 would be 0.0256
If slightly high (2D, call it 60%) the chances of all 4 would be 0.1296
If very high (10D, call it 90%) the chances of all 4 would be 0.6561
The very high figure here is so much higher than the others that it is the only reasonable value to use.
So, Pafter is 90.90%

2, Campaigners exist on both sides, it is not practical to estimate their effectiveness before the results of the campaigns are known, so 1 is the reasonable value for D.
Pafter is 90.90%

3. mission creep and normalising of ideas are established and researched concepts in psychology.
since psychology is a "soft" science, lets use a value of D=2
Pafter  is 95.23%

4. normalising of ideas, and "yes sets" are regularly and very profitably and effectively used in marketing, advertising, and sales. At the very minimum D=2.
Pafter is 97.56%

Based on this high level overview of the evidence then, the probability that any given assisted suicide legislation will in practice expand beyond it's initial parameters is 97.56%

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Fallacies commonly employed by the pro suicide/euthanasia movement

1. Accident: That features of an exceptional case are enough to justify rejection of a general rule.

2. Aprioism. Making a presumption in favour of a theory unsupported by evidence, and therefore rejecting relevant evidence.

(e.g. "mission creep" wouldn't happen here, so there is no point looking at what happened everywhere else that tried it)

3. Bifurcation (false dichotomy). Presentation of only two alternatives where others exist.

(e.g. either change the law on assisted suicide or unbearable suffering will result, Ignoring that there is also the choice of non-assisted suicide, and that current UK law allows the judiciary discretion in dealing with difficult cases [it's just not an automatic, uninvestigated, green light], and potential improvements to the already excellent standards of palliative and mental care that make unbearable suffering unlikely)

4.Argumentum ad Metum. Appeal to fear.

(e.g. I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of suffering [subtext, so should you be])

5. Argumentum ad Modum. Appeal to just proportions.

(e.g. disabled people should have the at least the same opportunity to commit suicide as the able bodied, if not greater, regardless of any negative consequences - it's only fair)

6. Sentimens Superior. Using sentiment solely as a guide rather than reason.

(e.g. celebrity/well known/liked person presents sob story in news, no attempt at rational argument, just straight appeal to emotion)

7. Argumentum ad Hominem Circumstantial. Appeal to the special circumstance of your opponent.

(e.g. He's a "faith-head". - even if it can be shown why an opponent thinks as he does, it still does not show him to be wrong. An xtian might condemn murder because his special book tells him to, but that doesn't mean he is wrong to condemn murder.)

8. Argumentum ad Hominem Abusive. Insult calculated to undermine an opponent's argument and cause others to give it less weight than merited.

(e.g. "He is callous and unpleasant." That may or may not be true, but either way it has no relevance to the quality of his argument.)

9. Argumentum ad Numeram. Wrongly equating numbers in support of a contention with the correctness of it.

(e.g. "70% support assisted suicide." Maybe they do, maybe they don't [surveys presenting arguments from both sides have produced rather different results] but more people believing something doesn't make them more likely to be right)

10. Petitio Principii (begging the question). Where use is made in the argument of something which the conclusion seeks to establish.

(e.g. They should be able to choose assisted suicide because they should have a right to choose the manner and time of their death. - it should be a choice because it should be a choice....)

11. Reification. Treating something that doesn't exist as if it does exist.

(e.g. "he [dead person] is not in pain anymore" - but of course now that he is dead he doesn't exist to be in pain or not in pain or anything else.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Lessons to learn from Sam Harris' response to being called sexist.

Note, this is concerned with the response "I'm not the sexist pig you're looking for" and reactions to it, not the original incident.


1. Some people will be against you, almost regardless of what you actually say.

2. Some people will support you, almost regardless of what you actually say.

3. If you want to convince a neutral observer (as in my humility I consider myself to be...)
    that you are not sexist, you should probably avoid saying things along the lines of:

  • (most) women regard all men as potential aggressors
  • I tend to respect women more than men
  • women need guns to be able to defend themselves against men
  • I was raised by a single mother
  • good men protect women from evil men
as these things are, in the context of a defense against accusations of sexism, and for some of them in any context at all, heavily redolent of the "women are wonderful/special/need protecting" strand of sexism.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Using the unforeseeable to justify the exclusion of the foreseeable

I have seen this type of (to me) rather bizarre non sequitur argument a few times over recent months, and from individuals that I would normally consider to be intelligent and able thinkers.

Basically it goes like this:

1. Our actions/decisions have possible but unpredictable/unforeseeable consequences.

2. (from 1) therefore we should ignore the (inconveniently negative*) probable/predictable/foreseeable consequences of our actions/decisions.

*while of course taking full account of any conveniently positive consequences

to illustrate with an example extreme enough to be (I hope) obviously false:

Any action I take could result in someone, or indeed many people, being murdered at some point in the future (in a chaos "butterfly" kind of way)
If people are going to be murdered as a result of my actions anyway, it is OK if I murder someone myself.

Monday, 8 September 2014

On the intersection of Imagination and Reality

Recently I was asked if I thought it a good idea to base decisions about reality on imaginary things.
Time and the limitations of the medium did not permit of a full answer, beyond a basic yes hypotheticals can be useful.

So, a little more...

Take an imaginary construct like the philosophical zombie - not a shambling flesh eating undead beast, but a "perfect"copy of a human, excepting that it has no inner life or life of the mind
It doesn't think to itself, no inner monologue.
It is otherwise indistinguishable from anyone else, can work, respond to questions as if it remembers things, tell you if it is happy or sad etc.
Is it alive? Is it human? If you somehow found out what it was, would it be okay to kill it?

Or how about the swamp man - I go out into the swamp and am somehow killed, completely disintegrated, so there is nothing left. Next day the swamp grows a perfect copy of me at the point of my death (or perhaps just a fraction before) which goes back into town and picks up my life where I left off.
Is it alive? Is it me? If my family finds out the first me died, should they be upset?

 Clearly (I hope) neither of those two are real things, but they can be useful tools for thinking about various concepts and problems that are real, Used skillfully imaginary constructs and scenarios can do things like isolating parts of a complex problem so that they can be considered independently or compared for differential importance, or they can give us space to look at something objectively and avoid or reduce emotional content.

But, here is a caveat, beware of using imaginary things not as a tool for thinking, but rather as an excuse not to think - e.g. The Great God Wibble says that this is just, therefore it is....

So, in short,

Imaginary things should not be used as an excuse not to think.
But nor should things being imaginary be used as an excuse not to think.

Shorter still


Think not not think.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The disingenuous question and the false argument

This is a question, variants of which, I have been asked, and have seen asked of others, many times.

"How can you explain DNA in evolutionary terms"

If you take it at face value it is fairly easy to answer, it only asks for an explanation after all - so any plausible hypothesis should do the trick.
Here is one, just off the top of my head.

Life begins as an inevitable result of the general movement toward thermodynamic equilibrium in appropriate systems, and among all the various forms of rudimentary life that are produced some have the capacity to absorb others and use the material to increase in size. These must have some sort of basic coding/instruction system to allow this building. Now either one of the life forms arising from thermodynamics also has the capacity to use this coding/instruction to split into two, or one of the coding systems goes wrong and results in a split rather than death. (if the chances of such an event were, say, 1 in 10 million billion billion, then it should have occurred about 14 times by now) So now we have life that splits, but the coding isn't perfect, so occasional mutations creep in, and so evolution begins. Over time complexity grows, both in the organism and in its coding system, eventually giving rise to basic protein type things, which in turn lead to better coding in a precursor to RNA, which paves the way for actual RNA, and so on to DNA.

So, there is an explanation in (very) basic evolutionary terms. It's light on the detail of course, and not established by research (and in any case researchers are likely to have their own, much better, ideas to examine). But that is not why those who ask the question will reject the answer.

They will reject any answer because the question is disingenuous - it is not a request for an explanation, it is a disguised statement  to the effect that -

"You cannot prove this particular thing therefore..."

And the therefore... is the false "God of the Gaps" argument

In standard form it would go something like this

(1) Phenomenon X occurs
(2) There is no proof of the cause of X
(3) If there is no proof of any other cause, supernatural agent Y must be assumed to be the cause
(4) Therefore (from 1,2, and 3) Agent Y must exist

A very common argument despite its obvious flaws

(5) The argument contains the fallacy of "circularity" in that the existence of agent Y is assumed in premise (3) and then stated as the conclusion (4).
(6) The basic form of premise (3) is flawed, e.g. before there was proof of the existence of DNA the coding process was not carried out by some other thing or agent.
(7) Therefore (from 3,4,5,and 6) the "God of the Gaps" argument is false.
<which is the thing I said it was>