Category Archives: Society
Letter in Dundee Courier; Watching out for religious hatred
Atheists see some merit in Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill, as it will enable the prosecution of all Scotland’s religions and their Holy Books for spreading hatred.
It is utterly unacceptable that in progressive, social democratic Scotland that squalid, Bronze Age village disputes, as described in the Holy Books, about control of women, goats or water should give Scotland’s “Holy Willies” authority to spout out vitriol against atheists, agnostics, apostates, sceptics, non-believers, women, trans people and homosexuals.
We fully intend to monitor all Holy Books, sermons in places of worship and the social media accounts of the various religions and report any hatred to Police Scotland for criminal investigation.
Ian Stewart, Convener, Atheist Scotland, Park Avenue, Dundee.
Christian News takes Mr Stewart very seriously:
If passed, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would criminalise words deemed “likely” to “stir up hatred” against particular groups. It would not require any proof of intent.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, warned against “the dangerous new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences”, saying that “they will give politically-motivated complainants like Mr Stewart a powerful weapon against their ideological opponents.”
He commented: “The threshold of the proposed offences is so low that Mr Stewart might well be able to persuade a police officer that certain unfashionable Bible verses or sermons are ‘hate crimes’. Does the Scottish Government really want to expose church ministers to the risk of prosecution at the instigation of anti-religious zealots?
Mr Calvert also pointed out that “Thankfully, Mr Stewart does not represent all atheists.”
The organisation “Atheist Scotland” does not seem to exist. But “Ian Stewart” sounds like someone I would like to get to know. The pending Hate Crime bill would certainly give him plenty of scope to carry out his threat, since it creates an offence of abusive speech likely to stir up hatred, whether there is any intent to stir up hatred and whether any hatred is stirred up or not, against members of various groups. Using the definitions in the Bill, these groups would include believers in different religions from the speaker, believers in no religion, homosexuals, transsexuals, and cross-dressers, all of whom you will find vilified in the Bible, while the Westminster Confession of Faith condemns all non-Christians to eternal conscious torment and serve them right.
The reality of course is that all the UK’s major secularists and humanist organisations, as well as a coalition ranging from the Free Church of Scotland to the Roman Catholics, have called (see e.g. Free to Disagree) for this bill in anything like its present form to be scrapped. There is no precedent for such diversity of opinion uniting around a cause, and for this, if nothing else, the Justice Minister is to be congratulated.
The draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is open for comment for just over one more week. It is a frightening attack on freedom of speech, and introduces a new offence of abusive speech, of which one can be guilty even without criminal intent, with penalties of up to seven years imprisonment. Fortunately, we still have time to persuade MSPs, of whom some even within the Government party have doubts. Links to the bill, other comments, and relevant email addresses are given below.
A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.
In brief, the bill is so broad, and its language so vague and inclusive, that it would be impossible to express oneself on a whole range of important issues without running the risk of offending.
The bill states that
A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.[Emphasis added]
The characteristics are age, disability, religion or, in the case of a social or cultural group, perceived religious affiliation, sexual orientation, transgender identity, variations in sex characteristics.
Notice that one can offend without intending to do so, even if no hatred is actually stirred up, and even if no member of the relevant group has actually complained. Strangely enough, when it comes to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins, there must be actual intent to stir up hatred. Why there should be this distinction is beyond my understanding, while expressions like “abuse” and “hatred” are so vague that there are a whole range of important current controversies (e.g. trans rights issues, the Palestine-Israel question, immigration, religious family law) were what some would regard as legitimate expression of opinion would risk being seen by others as abusive and stirring up hatred.
(Full text of the relevant sections at end of post)
Here’s what I sent to the Justice Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org, with copies to my Constituency and all my Regional MSPs:
As your constituent, I wish to comment on the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.
I welcome the abolition of the law against blasphemy, which I hope is in no way controversial, but an eight-word Bill would suffice for that.
I am a member of an ethnic minority group, and have been subjected to abusive speech likely to stir up hatred. Despite this, I am completely opposed to this Bill, which introduces a large number of necessarily ill-defined terms, and is likely to achieve the opposite of what is intended. I am particularly concerned at the creation of a new class of offence based on the extremely ill-defined concept of “abuse”, as well as the fact that it is possible to offend under this Bill with no intention of doing so.
If this Bill or anything at all like it becomes law, it will possible for me to offend without intending to do so by communicating material considered abusive, even if I do not consider it abusive, and even in the absence of complaints from anyone who is allegedly targeted, if it is found that it is likely (whatever that may mean) that what I communicate will stir up hatred, even if that was not my intent. I expect that many of us have offended multiple times by these criteria. Read the rest of this entry
Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020
There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre.  The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.
The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry
“People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. The experts who tell us that Brexit will be damaging and a no-deal Brexit devastating; that human-caused global warming is a clear and present danger [Correction: Michael Gove does accept the expert consensus on climate change]; that physics teachers know more about physics (and about teaching) than Michael Gove did when telling them what and how to teach and getting it wrong from beginning to end; that actions have consequences; that reality matters.
And so, regretfully, for the third time, why Michael Gove is not fit to lead an Easter egg hunt, let alone a nation on the brink of the most catastrophic decision since 1914.
And since among other things that decision may well force us to submit to whatever trading arrangements the Tramp Administration chooses to impose on us, I would also draw attention to Miles King’s Michael Gove and the American Neoconservatives.
Anyway,here we go again:
The [then] Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [reported here]. He has been widely criticized for this (e.g. here and here), but it’s still worth discussing exactly why what he said is so appallingly wrong, on at least four separate counts. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gove ever reads this, he may learn something. Muddling up the laws of motion with the laws of thermodynamics is bad enough. Muddling up an almost incidental observation, like Boyle’s Law, is even worse, especially when this muddle comes from someone in charge of our educational system [well, not mine actually; I’m glad to say I live in Scotland], and in the very act of his telling teachers and examiners what is, and what is not, important.
Okay, from the top. Newton’s laws; Gove probably meant (if he meant anything) Newton’s laws of motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton’s law (note singular) of gravity. [I went on to summarise both Newton’s laws, and Newton’s law, and to explain how the combination of these explained the hitherto mysterious phenomenon of planetary motion and related it to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity]
But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine… [I briefly described them]
If you don’t immediately realize that Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Gove’s blunder has been compared to confusing Shakespeare with Dickens. It is far, far worse than that. It is – I am at a loss for an adequate simile. All I can say is that it is as bad as confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics, and I can’t say worse than that.
And regarding Gove’s description of Boyle’s Law as “basic”, I had this to say:
He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.
Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.
Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)
Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context [in the kinetic theory of gases], but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding…
Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.
Even at Cabinet level.
And, I would now add, completely unfit for making major decisions in these interesting times.
Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?
Copied wth permission of the author, Adam Siegel, from http://getenergysmartnow.com/2007/09/13/sourcing-skepticism-what-factors-drive-questioning-of-global-warming/
The original was posted on September 13th, 2007 and attracted 23 Comments
Now it seems more relevant than ever, with such “skepticism” the posture of governments from Australia to Washington while the Arctic ice melts and methane begins to rise from the tundra.
Skepticism … the ability to question unquestioned beliefs and stated certainties is a powerful intellectual tool.
Sadly, “skepticism” is receiving a bad name through association with those ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic about denying the reality before their (and our) own eyes about the global changes in climate patterns and humanity’s role in driving these changes.
Questioner … Skeptic … Denier …
Clearly, not every question, not every challenge to data, not every voicing of concern is the same. Nor is every motivation the same. This is not simply about “fossil-fuel-funding” — although it can be at times. This is not simply about seeking Rapture and the end of times — even though it can be. This is not simply about political beliefs creating thought structures for dealing with science — but it can be. Read the rest of this entry
The dismantling of democracy, manipulation by algorithm, and what to do next; Part 2 ofAlgorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy
Updates 26 April: Faceook’s chief technology officer tells UK Parliament they did not read terms and conditions that enabled Cambridge Analytica’s data grab; 22 April, Facebook reported moving 1.5 billion users out of reach of pending EU privacy law; 2 May, Cambridge Analytica ceases trading, at least under that name, in US and UK. Part 1 here
Computational propaganda; a structural problem
Political bullshit was with us before the rise to dominance of on-line news sources, but developments over the past decade have made things far worse. Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, studies of fake news and elections, and way back in 2014 he coined the phrase “computational propaganda” to describe what was happening.
Opportunity for such propaganda is built into the very fabric of mass social media. Targeted ads and “suggestions” protocols are not optional features; they are what Facebook is for. People join groups that they agree with, and discussion among like-minded people moves consensus further away from the middle ground. Facebook’s recommendation system makes things even worse. An investigator for Buzzfeed, having signed up for antivaxx sites, found herself getting recommendations for groups about Pizzagate, the perils of fluoride, chemtrails, and Flat Earth.
Facebook also makes it easy to propagate fake news under false flags. Thus the page “Native Americans United”, apparently from the Dakota Pipeline protesters, with the message “Love water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother,” was produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. The same people also gave us a page “Black matters”, ostensively part of the Black lives Matter movement. Special Prosecutor Mueller has indicted 13 members of this troll farm, though they are clearly unlikely to ever enter his jurisdiction.
False news has a further advantage over reality on social media because it is generally more novel and attention-grabbing. Thus an analysis of Twitter shows that false news spreads faster, deeper (longer chains of transmission), and more broadly (total number of tweets) than true news. This seems to be the work of individuals, rather than bots. See here; full report here.
Facebook algorithms automatically promote those messages that keep people spending more time on the site. Read the rest of this entry
Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.
The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author’s UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.
Lying is lying; bullshit is different
Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.
This book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson’s chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world’s largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions Read the rest of this entry
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
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.
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 https://www.facebook.com/settings?tab=applications
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.