Sunday, November 13, 2016

Why Donald Trump won

Well, of course, I don't know. However, I know there's more to it than just blaming it on various flavours of bigot.

As I see it, these are some of the other reasons for Trump getting in, and to an extent the rise of the right, Brexit and UKIP etc. This isn't an exhaustive list, but if you want to tackle a problem, you need to know what the problem involves.

Firstly, the regressive left is part of the problem, as laid out by Jonathan Pie:

The movement to "no platform" speakers is not helpful. Ignoring ideas you don't like makes you ignorant of them, and it doesn't make those ideas, or the people who hold them, go away,

It also stops you engaging with and challenging those ideas, and to challenge those ideas in front of the people who turn up and might be swayed by them.

It's also the opposite of free speech. It's really easy to defend speech you agree with. But if you truly are for free speech, it means sticking up for racists who want to hold a rally in a field (so long as no laws were broken, they have every right to do so). Remember, no one has the right to not be offended:

All this does is create a climate of "crimethink" leaving certain points of view to be seen seen as verboten. Certain subjects become taboo to such an extent that they cannot even be discussed, and so these ideas stay in the heads of the people who have them, and get expressed in a polling booth.

This is related to another problem - The Filter Bubble.The things you get in search engines and on social media are designed to be what algorithms think you will want to see. This has the same problem as no platforming, but unlike no platforming (and similar) where you have to actively avoid differing opinions, the Filter Bubble does it all for you. You can game it - because I actively seek out and read pseudoscience, religious apologetics and conspiracy theories, these get fed to me in Facebook for example, even though I am not their target audience (for example there's a Chiropractic Clinic that pops up regularly. When it does, I just leave "Beware the spinal trap" in the comments).

The majority of people don't do this, and so will likely get news and opinion from those similar to them. They will consequently mostly see stuff they agree with - be that Clinton/Trump; #Brexit/Remain. This makes it hard to stay informed. When one of the campaigns lies (as Trump did - here's what he said about Obama vs what Obama actually said, as one example) or misinforms you (as both leave and remain did). This is a problem - with increasing numbers of people getting their news via social media. If your source of news is The Canary or Breitbart, your picture of politics is going to be heavily distorted from reality.

People who hadn't actively looked for news beyond their social media feeds may have been entirely unaware of Trump's deceit - and it's naive, but not unreasonable, to suppose that at a rally you will be told the truth by your prospective candidate.

Of course, the main reason that Trump got in is that people voted for him. But again, to tar them all as bigots is stop yourself from understanding the wider social context they're in. This article from Cracked sums it up well - it's written by someone from Trump country, who left for the big cities, and whilst he sees Trump as Bad Thing, it does help to get some empathy for where Trump supporters are coming from. As the author notes at the end "It feels good to dismiss people, to mock them, to write them off as deplorables. But you might as well take time to try to understand them, because I'm telling you, they'll still be around long after Trump is gone."

Trump's election does rather lend support to Churchill's aphorism "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But there are many reasons why we are here. I don't know what all those reasons are, but to fail to look beyond "it's racist voting" is to fail to understand how we've got to where we are. And to solve a problem, you have to understand it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Some thoughts on Trump victory

I've seen this image do the rounds again:

It's a fake. There are many flaws about Trump, amongst many things for example, he is: a serial liaranti-science (he is anti-vaccine; denies climate change and has made negative comments about the NIH and NASA for example); misogynistic and has boasted about sexually assaulting women; racist and "pathologically impulsive and self-centered". It bugs me to see a fake criticism of something, or someone, that already has more than enough material for criticism to start with.

It also bugs me because this is displaying exactly the kind of divisive ideology that Trump used to help him get where he is, by vilifying Republicans as the "dumbest group of voters in the country". We should be better than that.

There is no need to invent falsehoods to criticise Trump, especially those that mirror his flaws.

So what can we do? Well this is some nice advice that popped into my Facebook feed today:

It shares some sentiments with something Edmund Burke wrote in 1770:

"Whilst men are linked together, they easily and speedily communicate the alarm of any evil design. They are enabled to fathom it with common counsel, and to oppose it with united strength. Whereas, when they lie dispersed, without concert, order, or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and resistance impracticable. Where men are not acquainted with each other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public. No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents 82-83 (1770) in: Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 1, p. 146 (Liberty Fund ed. 1999).

This was more pithily put as "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

So we have to do something. But what? Well, another famous quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Pastor Martin Niemöller

The power is in our hands to do some things, for example, in the wake of Brexit there was spike in hate crimes. It seems reasonable to suppose that American bigots will be emboldened. This was a cartoon to show how to offer support if you see someone being a victim of an Islamophobic abuse, but the advise works for other groups too - religious, racial, LGBTQ etc

You don't just have to wait for something to come to you. It may sound trite, but I think we really do need to be the change we want to see in the world. It seems there's a lot of us out there wanting things to change, but unless we get together and do something about, it won't.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Simon Bishop RIP

I found out Simon Bishop died today. He was a kind and generous man, and I barely new him, save through Twitter and Facebook. In fact, I only got to meet him IRL three times.

I first noticed him as I watched the Atheist Bus JustGiving page get bigger and bigger, with his name frequently appearing, with very large donations - if you visit the site now you'll see his last donation on the front page.

With all the atheist/humanist twitterers I already followed, his name popped up in my feed, and I followed him and thanked him for the his support of the BHA campaign. He was a vocal anti-theist, and I was much more vocal about atheism then, so we got on pretty quickly. That was 7 odd years ago, when his followers were few. That year I did a Three Peaks/55 Mile/Chicago Marathon challenge in 2009, which I naturally tweeted about. I was overwhelmed to receive ~£850 from Simon over the course of the year. Initially, he 

Such surprising generosity, as we had only ever interacted through twitter. 

When I saw via twitter (naturally) that we were both in London at the same time I arranged to meet him as I wanted to buy him a drink and say thank you. Of course, he bought the drinks, but it was great to have a chat and and to say thank you in person. At that point, he had donated £400.

The next time I met him was up in Leeds, again, we had coincidentally ended up in the same city at the same time. We both shared a mutual friend of a friend too, and all ended up having breakfast at the end of the weekend. Naturally he paid.

He also bought my wife an iPad - he made an offer on twitter to buy people iPads, and with my wife's laptop having recently died, and it being a good distraction that helps with her depression, I jumped at the chance. 

Of course there was much more to Simon than his material generosity. He said on Facebook "I have some very good friends who need help. Some need emotional help (which I'm crap at) and some need financial help (which I'm good at)." One only need look at the tributes on Twitter and Facebook to see that he was much better at the emotional help than he realised.

I am glad that the last time I met Simon I was able to thank him for that in person too, and that we had a good long chat about life, the universe and everything. He really did enjoy hearing how he had helped.

The last thing he said to me was that it was really nice to get to know me a lot better and that he looked forward to more of it with his more frequent trips to Chichester. Sadly, that was two years ago. 

I am sorry that I won't be able to tell him how my unborn bady likes to kick about to music played to her from the iPad he bought.

I didn't know him well, but he left a big impression on me. I can't imagine the grief for those who were much closer to him.

The world is not as good as it was now that he has gone.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

It's a bit more complicated than that - fat and sugar

Ian Leslie has written an interesting long read for the Guardian: "The Sugar Conspiracy".

It's a good illustration of how science works. Science is a great idea and, I would argue, the best thing we have for finding out if something is true or not. I like Jerry Coyne's definition of science, broadly construed: "as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge." Unfortunately, like many great ideas, it's carried out by fallible humans, and so whilst in principle, and practice, science has given us great leaps forward, that progress is often constrained by the personalities and foibles of those involved in the debate at the time. Max Planck's remark neatly sums this up: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Leslie, referencing that same remark (and showing empirical support for it), shows how nutritional advice has followed this pattern. (To see another illustration of this in practice, you should read the excellent Big Bang by Simon Singh).

However, I have a few problems with the article:

The first is that it talks favourably about the Atkins diet, deriding those who questioned it. However, the Atkins diet is a fad diet, and not a very good one.

For starters, Leslie rightly says "Controlled trials have repeatedly failed to show that people lose weight on low-fat or low-calorie diets, over the long-term.". The problem is, the Atkins diet is also a low calorie diet.

The Atkins diet advocates high fat and protein, and virtually no carbohydrates. The diet results in people eating food that leaves them feeling full for longer. Consequently, they have a reduced calorie diet because they don't eat as many calories. Whilst patients may lose weight on the Atkins diet, the diet is not risk free - for example it may lead to damage to tissue and vascular damage, and could lead to life threatening complications.

The article also seemed a bit disingenuous to claim "Only in the last few years has it become acceptable to study the effects of Atkins-type diets." Atkins first book may have been published in 1972, but it was the 2002 book "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" that really saw the Atkins diet take off (see the Google ngram graph). It didn't take long for the scientific community to look at the efficacy and safety of low-carb diets, see "Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets: hoax or an effective tool for weight loss?" from The Lancet in 2004 and "Safety of low-carbohydrate diets" from 2005. These are both over a decade old - does that qualify as the "last few years"?

The Atkins diet also restricts intake of fruit and vegetables - diets high in fruit and veg lower the chances of a number of diseases.

On top of that, ideally the goal of a weight loss programme should be for the weight to stay off. A recent (albeit small) study showed the Atkins diet was no more effective than other weight loss programmes, but that after the 6 month trial, the 12 month follow up showed that weight had been put back on.

My second issue with the article is that it leaves one with the impression that fats are okay, and sugar is bad, and that reducing sugar is the key to resolving the obesity epidemic (and there is an epidemic - some people will try and tell you that there isn't one, but it has become harder to deny when there are more obese people than underweight people in the world) - but it's much more complicated than that. Cutting out carbohydrates is will not give a healthy, balanced diet, after all carbohydrates are the bodies preferred energy source - in fact the NHS Eat Well guide is a very good way of thinking about how much, and of what, you should be eating. However, following a diet plan can be useful, and there is also a guide on the pros and cons of a number of diets out there on the market. Indeed cutting out carbohydrates will result in less fruit and veg being consumed - something Robert Lustig does not recommend.

This leads to another grumble - Leslie should have distinguished between refined carbohydrates ("sugar") and complex carbohydrates, like starch. The article is about the refined carbs - what people put in their tea, and yet when advocating low carb diets, this can include cutting out complex carbohydrates as well. It's a distinction that should have been made.

Lastly, Taubes is lauded for his book, but he is not without his critics - some of those criticisms are the same that Leslie is making: conclusions being made with insufficient evidence, which Taubes is also guilty of when he concludes that low carb diets are the key.

Diet is not the only factor when it comes to weight management. It is emerging that the microbiome of the gut may play a part, and of course, the other important factor absent is levels of exercise. The article makes it look like cutting out carbs will solve obesity, but his isn't the case.

Whilst there are lots of factors involved in a person's weight, achieving or maintaining a healthy weight isn't complicated. You must expend more calories than you take in to lose weight. It's simple physics - whilst people may lose weight at a different rate, the body gets its energy from the food that is eaten. If more of that energy is being used than is being taken in, then weight will reduce. As Michael Pollen said "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants". I would add - move yourself often.

The problem though is not informing people of these things, it's actually changing people's behaviour (see page 13 of this link) so that the information is taken on board - but if the information provided is misleading, as I feel that Ian Leslie's article is, then that won't help in that regard.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts on terrorism

A couple of memes have popped up quite frequently in my social media feeds regarding the recent atrocities. Both I feel I should share, but for different reasons.

First we have this, which I take issue with:

Here are the groups responsible for those attacks. I have gone for those attacks that most closely match the numbers of dead. Sadly, some of the above cities have been the victims of more than one attack.

Lahore27/03/2016Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
Maiduguri16/03/2016Boko Haram
Ankara13/03/2016Kurdistan Freedom Falcons
Grand Bassam13/03/2016AQIM

Some terrorism may have no religion, but three of these groups are overtly religious, and do what they do in the name of their religion:

  • Boko Haram - founded with the goal of establishing an Islamic state, and now allied with ISIS.
  • ISIS - Specifically set up to have a world wide Islamic caliphate.
  • Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan - an umbrella group for various Sunni Islamist militants, one of their goals being the enforcement of their interpretation of Sharia law.

I am not saying that all Muslims are terrorists, but to say that terrorism as a whole has no religion is to deny part of the problem. Some terrorism has religious motivation. As Sam Harris* has said:

"Many countries in Latin America have legitimate grievances against the U.S. Where are the Guatemalan suicide bombers? Where are the Cherokee suicide bombers, for that matter? If oppression were enough, the Tibetans should have been practicing suicidal terrorism against the Chinese for decades. Instead, they practice self-immolation, for reasons that are totally understandable within the context of their own religious beliefs. Again, specific beliefs matter, and we deny this at our peril. If the behavior of Muslim suicide bombers should tell us anything, it's that certain people really do believe in martyrdom. Let me be very clear about this: I'm not talking about all (or even most) Muslims - I'm talking about jihadists. But all jihadists are Muslim. If even one percent of the world's Muslims are potential jihadists, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I'm not sure how we deal with 16 million aspiring martyrs - but lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem doesn't seem like the best strategy."

Sam Harris's 1% is not that far fetched - this is from a Pew poll "The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society" that took a dispassionate look at the beliefs of Muslims around the world:

They may be in the minority, but many Muslims feel suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified.

The second meme deals with the issue of understanding ISIS specifically:

Firstly, yes, the meme has a number of mistakes - some of the details aren't quite correct, in terms of locations, dates etc. Also, two of the attacks were not by ISIS - Ankara on March 15th, and San Diego (I'm guessing it means San Bernardino). I'm also not sure if the statement that ISIS is killing more Muslims than any other group is true.

That said, the central point is important - our media is biased in its reporting. This is partly understandable, we feel more empathy to those closest to us. The Paris and Brussels attacks shook me far more than the other attacks mentioned in these memes, because I know people there, I've visited there. It resonates far more than places across the globe I've not visited, and don't know anyone that's from there. This in no way diminishes the grief, pain and sorrow of each of these attacks, but to feel equal empathy for all the world's ills is to leave one in such a well of pity and despair, I don't think there would be any way out.

Whilst the West's disproportionate reporting of terrorism is understandable, a consequence is that it very much seems that ISIS is out to get us in the West specifically. But they're not - they want to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate under their interpretations of Islamic Law, whether you identify as Muslim or not.

I haven't got the first clue how to bring world peace, but when it comes to dealing with terrorism, you have to identify the problem itself, and ignoring parts of it - in this case the motivations, and the atrocities occurring very far from our doorstep - we are prone to being duped by those who claim to offer solutions to our perceived problems, and not the actual issue at hand.

*Sam Harris seems to provoke a lot of controversy around what he says. If you have issue with some of Sam Harris' other views, that's cool, but please let's just focus on the quote I have used and nothing more.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...