Category Archives: Politics

Truth imitates satire (again) at the Environmental Protection Agency

Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Pruitt after announcing intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission

“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner.The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue… [C]lear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”

These are among the talking points distributed to EPA staffers this week.

Have you seen this kind of language before? Yes, you have indeed, from Pruitt himself almost actually a year ago.  At that time, I pointed out that Pruitt was following the script of BBC’s satire, Yes Minister. I have now tracked down the relevant episode, where UK Cabinet Minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, asks his trusted Civil Servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, how to deal with evidence that one would rather ignore. Sir Humphrey’s advice:

Discredit the evidence that you are not publishing. This is, of course, much easier than discrediting evidence that you do publish… You say: (a) that it leaves important questions unanswered (b) that much of the evidence is inconclusive (c) that the figures are open to other interpretations (d) that certain findings are contradictory (e) that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. Points (a) to (d) are bound to be true. In fact, all of these criticisms can be made of a report without even reading it. There are, for instance, always some questions unanswered — such as the ones they haven’t asked. As regards (e), if some of the main conclusions have not been questioned, question them!

That, by the way, was about the safety of a chemical processing by-product.

Jim proving he has elbows

Hacker (L) explaining his dilemma to Sir Humphrey

You might perhaps be concerned about the degree of contact with reality with which the EPA (to quote further talking points distributed this week) “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies, recognizes the challenges that communities face in adapting to a changing climate, [and] will continue to advance its climate adaptation efforts.”

But really there’s no cause to worry, because, according to Reuters, Pruitt has “reaffirmed plans for the EPA to host a public debate on climate science sometime this year that would pit climate change doubters against other climate scientists.” It’s not clear where he’ll find his climate change doubters, but I’m sure he’ll manage, and no doubt the debate will take place with the same level of intellectual content and integrity that we have seen from the Senate Environment Committee, or would expect to see in a debate on evolution organised by Vice President Pence.

So stop making a silly fuss about the Government telling scientists to misrepresent the science.

Image and quotations from EPA talking points via Washington Post, 28 March 2018. Quotation from Yes Minster via Hacker/Appleby image via Temperature image from NASA Goddard via Wikipedia; public domain

The “Nazi pug” was offensive; the law far more so. I have written to my MP

“If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech”

I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and institutionalised.

I am therefore, presumably, among those whom Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003  would most wish to shield from offence in this case. But the law itself is an offence against my freedom of expression, and I know that there are many who find my own publicly expressed views highly offensive. For this reason, I have written to my MP asking him to support repeal of ths section of the law, and urge my readers in the UK to do likewise.

The facts are not in dispute. A Mr Meechan, apparently annoyed with his girlfriend, trained her dog to raise his paw in imitation of a Nazi salute in response to the cues “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, and posted this performance on YouTube, where Read the rest of this entry

What to do about your Facebook settings *right now*

L: Cambridge Analytica’s front page image. Message superposed: “Data drives all we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.”

This for starters. Further suggestions welcome. Remember that the way Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data of 50 million Americans in 2016 is no mere loophole, but built into Facebook’s very nature.

Christopher Wylie describes his part in Cambridge Analytica’s work for Bannon

Remember that sharing your personal information with paying customers is not some kind of glitch on Facebook. It is what Facebook is for. And (actual example) while the shoe company may be interested in your politics because it correlates (indeed it does!) with your taste in shoes, Cambridge Analytica used (uses?) information about people’s taste in shoes in order to target political messages. And if, like me, you have answered online political or personality tests, you may well have helped them.

Remember in what follows that “Friends of friends” is likely to include trolls and spybots.

Click on the tiny downwards arrow at the far right of the blue bar along the top of the page.

Click on “Settings

First, go to “Apps“. I was shocked to discover here a list of all the organisations I had enabled to see my Facebook information, including such details as my Friends list. Ehich I had made accessible to the Daily Express, because I must have signed on to it at one time using Facebook.

Hover in turn over each name listed. If you have any doubts about it, x it out to remove it. Otherwise, click on the pencil icon that appears, in order to edit.

REMOVE permission to see your list of Friends (of course you never consciously gave it; that’s the point), your birthday (for financial security reasons, I gave a fake, which I noted elsewhere, in case I need it to unlock my account), and anything else that you are not happy for that organisation to have. In particular, scan down to remove (I was shocked to discover I had even given) permission to see “likes”. Do you really want these companies to know that much about you? And set “App visibility” to “Only me”.

You can ask the companies whose Apps are shown to delete information they hold about you, but there is no way that Facebook or anyone else can tell if they have actually done so.

Security and login: change your password

Privacy settings and Tools: IMPORTANT – set “Who can see your friends list?” to “Only me”. Otherwise, you are giving away usable information about your friends without their permission. The other settings here depend on how you use Facebook, who you want to see everything you do there, and who you want to be able to  find and contact you.

Timeline and tagging: “Only me” for the right to carrying on your timeline,”Review posts”, and “Review tags” should be On.

Ad preferences: read what Facebook says about these on this page. Once you have done so, you may want to remove some of the information that you have placed on your public profile. Notice that categories of ads you have clicked on then appear on the sub-page “Your interests”,although you may remove these by hovering and x-ing out. I just removed several of these in order to protect my own privacy.

App preferences: this is different from “Apps” and is, designedly, diffcult to get to.I followed the istructions given here; which were: While logged in, open a tab and go to

Then either click the Edit button under “Apps, Websites and Plugins” and disable platform or, my choice, go to “Apps Others Use”, run your eye down what you’ve checked for such apps to read about you (I was horrified), uncheck as necessary, and save changes.

Reporting fake news: details from here; Click on the three dots to the right of the title of the pot, then to “give feedback on this post”, then to “False news” and follow obvious links.

And when you’ve done all that, go to the bottom of the list that came up when you clicked that little arrow and log off. That may make it a bit more difficult for companies (or others carrying out surveillance) to spy on you.

And while we’re at it, why just Facebook? see Pigliucci’s Against the Four (Amazon, Apple, facebook, and Google). I have now replaced Google’s Chrome browser with Firefox, and set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, which does not record my search history.

I do not claim any special competence in this kind of technical area (the very reverse in fact). So I am sure that this post has many inadequacies, and would strongly welcome comments and suggestions for improvement.

h/t Jim Stone for information on App preferences and on Reporting fake news. Disclosure: WordPress has access to my Facebook friends list. This may be totally unnecessary, but I did not want to risk disrupting communication.

Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?

The Grumpy Geophysicist

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…

View original post 1,180 more words

Evolution, the Iraqi Translation Project, and science in the Arab World

Translations change the course of civilisations. The translation project begun by Caliph al-Mansour in the 8th century CE, and accelerated under his grandson Harun al-Rashid, made available in Arabic scholarly writings from Greek, Aramaic (Syriac), Persian, and Indian sources, and laid the foundation for the flowering of science and philosophy in the Islamic world during Europe’s Dark Ages. A second translation project, from the 10th century onwards, was in the other direction, from Arabic to Latin. Among its initiators was Gerbert d’Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, and it reached its height in Toledo in Spain where for a while Christianity and Islam came into close contact and where Gerard of Cremona translated al Khwarismi and Avicenna (ibn Sina), as well as Arabic versions of works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. It refreshed Europe’s contact with classical learning, while also conveying what was then current scholarship. It was the pathway through which Christian Europe rediscovered Aristotle, while Avicenna’s clinical expertise is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. His writings on geology, which I have discussed elsewhere, were among those translated at this time, but originally misattributed to Aristotle.

Avicenna_Expounding_Pharmacy_to_his_Pupils_Wellcome_L0008688L: Avicenna expounding pharmacy to his pupils, from the 15th century “Great Cannon [sic] of Avicenna”; Wellcome Library via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Happily, if belatedly, another translation project is now under way, from English to Arabic, focused largely on science-related topics of general interest, with special attention to evolution.

Why evolution? Not only because of its central role in modern life sciences, but because Read the rest of this entry

Take the Pro-Truth Pledge (because we’re all fallible)

Pro-Truth Pledge LogoI  learnt about this pledge from the Skeptic Reading Room. And while I generally loathe public pledges (too much virtue signalling for my liking), I am making an exception for this one, in response to our exceptional times. And the fine print makes admirable reading. Besides,  several hundred public figures and organizations have signed it, including Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, and what’s good enough for them is good enough for me. Many dozens of politicians have signed it as well, and one of the aims is to persuade more to do so, and hold them accountable.

Truth matters. Propagating untruth is big business and big politics. The traditional guardians of truth have abdicated, are compromised, or lack traction. By default, the job of protecting truth falls to us. We need to take our responsibility seriously.

We are all drawn towards confirmation bias, group think (our own group, of course!), lack of diligence in verifying material that agrees with us, lack of charity towards opponents, and more besides. So the pledge is no trivial commitment and I certainly found that reading it gave me much pause for thought about my own behaviour.

Here’s what the pledge commits you to. You can sign it here. I have. Hold me to it.

I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:

Share truth

  • Verifyfact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
  • Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
  • Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
  • Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts

Honor truth

  • Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
  • Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information

Encourage truth

  • Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
  • Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
  • Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
  • Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth

How NOT to talk to a Trump supporter

From “29 celebrities who endorse Donald Trump”, Business Insider October 2016

“With every ‘I told you so’ and demand that they apologize to you, personally, for the sin of being wrong, you are hardening [them] against the possibility of changing their minds. I know you may feel that you cannot be happy until they apologize, admit they were wrong, that they were stupid, that everything they ever believed about the war was in error. They know it too… [But] they don’t want to make you happy. Frankly, you haven’t given them any reason to.” Megan McArdle, The Atlantic, writing in 2008, about why so many people still refused to admit that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had led to disaster, and even persisted in believing in the face of the evidence that Saddam Hussein really had had weapons of mass destruction.

Now think how this applies to Trump supporters, as they get more and more opportunities to see what was really meant by “getting rid of Obamacare” or by “cutting taxes” or by “draining the swamp” or by “Make America Great Again”, or by “crooked” or by having someone of Trump’s moral and intellectual calibre in the White House.

Dark green shows where Trump vs Clinton outperformed Romney vs Obama. See New York Times here for key and commentary

Of course, with a little bit of effort you can do even worse than that. You can insult them. Ignore that many of them had voted for Obama (see map on right). Ignore the long slow steady slide of Democratic support in Middle America. Ignore how six decades of business as usual had done nothing or less than nothing for small town rural America. Ignore the loss of American (and other!) lives in undeclared wars that most Americans hadn’t even heard of. Ignore that the alternative to Trump was someone who saw nothing wrong in taking six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (“that’s what they offered“). Just remind them how stupid you think they are. Call them bigots too, if you like. Or deplorables. Works every time.

The McArdle quotation is from a long and thoughtful essay entitled Anger Management, on the importance of bridge-building, originally written during Iraq’s descent into chaos, but now more relevant than ever. I came across it through  Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz’s splendid account of how we are all more or less wrong (even you and me, dear reader) most of the time, how essential this is to our growth, and how difficult it is for all of us to admit it. Especially when the Other Lot are self-righteously asking us to do so.

A final quote from McArdle: “I as well as anyone know the delights of unloading one’s accumulated venom on richly deserving targets… But I also understand that unloading, while making me feel better, does not usually advance my cause.”

Venom is not, and should not be, enough to win elections.

What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 035

The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

Read the rest of this entry

Trump boasts of genetic superiority, German blood

Reposting because relevant:

I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in

QUOTE: All men are created equal – that’s not true. When you connect two race horses, you usually end up with a fast horse. Secretariat doesn’t produce slow horses. I have a certain gene. I’m a gene believer. Do you believe in the gene thing? I mean I do. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.

I have like a very very high aptitude

Trump shows us where his superiority is located (CNN)

Well I think I was born with a drive for success. I was born with a certain intellect. The fact is you have to be born and be blessed with something up there. God help me by giving me a certain brain. It’s this [tapping his head], it’s not my salesmanship. This – you know what that is? I have an Ivy League education [true, just about: he spent his last undergraduate year at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennslyvania, which is Ivy League], smart guy. I have like a very very high aptitude.

 You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff

I mean, like, I’m a smart person. You’re born a fighter, and I’ve seen a lot of people who want to fight but they can’t. Some people cannot genetically handle pressure.

I always said that winning is somewhat, maybe, innate. Maybe it’s just something you have; you have the winning gene. Frankly it would be wonderful if you could develop it, but I’m not so sure you can. You know I’m proud to have that German blood, there’s no question about it. Great stuff.

(We can’t pretend we weren’t told what he is and what he thinks about race. He told us)

Source: Yes I watched him say all this. Video at

Trump is unhinged

Read his own words. Source: White House transcript of remarks aboard Air Force One.

Border wall could be solar. Must be transparent because of danger from bags of drugs being thrown over. 700 to 900 miles would be enough because of natural barriers and some areas so remote that no one crosses there.

Only learnt of Trump jr meeting Russians days ago.

Has good relationship with all 19 others of G20.

But healthcare is tough.

If Hillary had got in, energy prices would be double.

Says Dakota Access Pipeline goes to Pacific [actually goes to Illinois en route to Texas].

His base is substantially stronger than it was in November, and this Russia stuff is making him stronger because his supporters feel it’s an unfair witchhunt.

Bloomberg and CNN report the same transcript, released by White House.

Excerpts follow. I give complete paragraphs to avoid risk of quote mining (disclosure; I am not a Trump supporter). For his account of his discussion with Putin, which I found completely impenetrable, see link to transcript.

Trump Air Force One

On the border wall:

Q             You were joking about solar, right?

THE PRESIDENT:  No, not joking, no. Read the rest of this entry

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