Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Militant atheism - obvious and trivial?

Another day, another desperate attempt to discredit "ignorant" atheists for allegedly mowing down straw men without understanding the depth and subtlety of Actually Existing Beliefs. I guess this stuff might be convincing to the subset of believers who are ignorant of - or in denial about - the history and evolution of their own belief systems, but to call this sort of lazy ad hominem an "argument" is an insult to brawling drunks everywhere.

Really, apologists, is this the best you've got? Even I can do better than that. A better argument against "militant" atheism might start with the observation that most of the bees in secular bonnets are either obvious or trivial.

Criticising the minority of religious bigots and fanatics who do or say deplorable things in the name of religion falls into the "obvious" category. Religiously-inspired misogyny and homophobia, fragging innocents in "martyrdom operations," female genital mutilation, know-nothing Young Earth Creationism, killing apostates and infidels are all either cruel, or stupid, or both. O rly? Let me run that past you one more time. Things that are obviously dumb or bad are ... dumb or bad. No shit, Sherlock.

As for questioning the supernatural beliefs of the benign or harmless religious majority, isn't that a trivial pursuit? So what if people hold supernatural beliefs that seem unconvincing, confused, evidence-lite, or self-contradictory, so long as they behave like good, reasonable citizens? Does anybody give a hoot if I think they're objective deists, rather than consistent adherents of whatever belief system they claim to follow?

After all, none of us are completely rational beings, free from cognitive bias, so maybe secularists ought to turn their urge to question everything towards testing their own beliefs, rather than lecturing believers about the stupidity of their God delusion.

I don't entirely buy this argument, but it's way more convincing than simply accusing non-believers of "ignorance," when there's reason to believe that, on average, atheists and agnostics who have consciously rejected religion tend to know more about the subject than most believers.

Sure, it's better to be right than wrong, but in a utilitarian sense you can have irrational, poorly-thought through notions on abstruse subjects like theology or cosmology, but still be great at your day job, be a friend in need and generally be a high-functioning, useful member of society. Is a non-believer with a well-thought-out critique of religion like a train-spotter who can identify every piece of rolling stock on the rail network - unnecessarily well-informed about obscure things that most people can function perfectly well without knowing?

The reason I don't entirely buy this argument is precisely because we aren't completely rational beings and are vulnerable to bad arguments driving out good ones. And a lot of religious-style thinking appears to rest on bad arguments - never mind plausibility or evidence, if you believe something deeply enough, and can get enough people to repeat it often enough, your message will become the de facto truth.

Take the Nicene Creed. Is it plausible or reasonable to assent to the claim that that this guy, Jesus Christ, was born from the mystical union of a virgin* and a supernatural being, rose from the dead and was the son of the supernatural being who created the entire universe? Not particularly, and these "facts" shouldn't seem any more objectively likely no matter how many times they are repeated. And yet, if an assertion is repeated loudly and often enough...
... when a particular narrative is repeated often enough, two things happen. First, it becomes dominant, and alternative versions of the truth are suppressed. We have actually seen this very clearly with opposition to the cuts. Once it became clear that the bulk of the media had tuned into the idea that cuts to public services were necessary ..., dissenting voices became paranoid that they may be perceived as shrill or irrational, and so adopted this narrative of necessity and moved on to the next battle ....
Second, and possibly more important, the teller of the tale begins to believe it as the only and definitive version of the truth. It evolves into unshakeable dogma.
Alex Andreou in The Graun

My beef with religion isn't over the abstruse question of whether or not some supernatural being or realm might possibly exist, but the basis on which I'm expected to believe in facts. So far as I can see, religion propagates its version of the truth by the same repetitive, untrustworthy methods as political propaganda, public relations and advertising:
REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION.... [insert name of political party] leaders, taking their cues from a pollster's strategy memo, began trying to characterize the [insert measure] as a [insert disparaging description]. It's obvious the argument was a lie. It was equally obvious the [insert name of political party] didn't care... ...
...Which, in a nutshell, is why our political discourse can be so mind-numbing -- [insert name of political party] believe they have an incentive to lie with impunity.
In their most twisted form, these arguments become sub-rational and seek to directly appeal to irrational or unconscious perceptions and attitudes. This is called "priming". Using carefully crafted language, political actors are able to present their irrational claims as if they are actually rational. This type of argument seeks to break old associations and create new ones; attacks weakened or twisted versions of the opposing side's argument; or even simply makes up "facts" and establishes them in the discourse. This last effect is magnified by the way the mass media tends to echo itself: what one columnist paraphrases on Monday is reported by others as fact on Tuesday and quotation on Wednesday. In this way, "facts" can arise out of nothing more than repetition.
Repetition is an important part of advertising. Repetition is an important part of advertising. Why? Because, it is through repetition that you establish your credibility, establish brand familiarity, become the first thought when a need for your type of product or service arises, etc.
It probably doesn't matter whether such techniques affect your metaphysics - God will happily carry on not existing / existing no matter what you happen to think, or how you come to your conclusions, but when this style of believing reaches out to affect our decision-making in what we can all pretty much agree is the real world, it's clear how it can obscure the truth and leave us vulnerable to manipulation. Given that we are prone to irrationality and cognitive biases, we need all the help we can get to know what's really going on and become less blinkered. Substituting the propagation of faith (AKA Propaganda) for evidence-based argument doesn't exactly count as helping.

*Interestingly, the reference to Jesus coming 'down from heaven' and being 'incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary' was absent from the original creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but was added at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Make of that what you will.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Sluggish, bloated, uncomfortable?

UK house prices between 1975 and 2006 adjusted for inflation.
David Boyle's description of the UK economy as 'Constipated with [household] debt' appealed to me, because it sounded like a particularly apt description of a nation stuffed with an accumulated blockage of personal debt so huge that clearing it out is going to be a very painful and extremely messy process:
Creating debt is the way that banks create most of our money in circulation.  It is controversial, archaic and definitely not fit for purpose.  In fact, 60 per cent of the money in circulation started life as mortgages.

It is a sobering thought that, without the house price boom, we would have so little money that life would grind slowly to a halt.
Although I'd quibble with 'controversial' when the default description of rising property values is a "healthy" market, and house prices that aren't heading skywards like a homesick angel are usually described as either "flat" or "stagnating."

Boyle hints that he may go on to blog about proposals for reform, but you have to be pessimistic about the prospects for rational reform of a feeding frenzy driven by the sort of conceited, unteachable numpties who imagine that buying a house that's gone up in value by more or less the same ridiculous amount as all the other equivalent properties on the market is a sign of genius which confers unlimited bragging rights:
Another signal of an overheating property market is the drone of the dinner party bores who fail to realise that they are talking not about a smart investment that has done well for them, but about their homes - and that therefore they would have to pay the same premium to live somewhere else comparable.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rocket man

New adventures in radical chic from Lib Dem MP David Ward, who asks himself a question:

then goes on to lecture the rest of us on taking sides:
Personally, I think it's a lot more complicated than that (although no less tragic, whichever way you apportion blame). What caught my attention wasn't David Ward's opinion about Gaza, but his opinion of himself. In his own head, he's the kind of guy who chooses sides and rushes to the barricades, the sort of kick-ass dude you don't mess with unless you want a rocket up your ass - think Rambo in a keffiyeh.

Which all sounds a bit incongruous, coming from a Lib Dem MP. I'm not entirely sure that I take kindly to lectures about having to take sides from a member of a party that campaigned for office on a platform of abolishing tuition fees, then collaborated with the party that proceeded to increase them massively (David Ward voted strongly in favour). And helped the Tories push through the bedroom tax, then decided it might be a bad idea when they realised that they were shortly to be held and account at an election (Ward sort of made up his mind which side he was on, then bravely voted a mixture of "for" and "against" when the bedroom tax was debated).

Ward, the fearless anti-authoritarian rebel was just about tough and principled enough to vote against clauses 5 and 6 of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, but when it came to the final vote, like the majority of his colleagues from all parties, he meekly capitulated and voted for the DRIP. His name did not appear anywhere on the list of 51 MPs still possessed of a backbone.

Taking sides and making a stand in a country that's at peace, where the worst the other side in Parliament can do to you is quash your political ambitions, takes a lot less steel than taking sides in an armed conflict where making the wrong decision can result in your own death, or the death of your loved ones, or of innocent bystanders. Personally, I don't think that a Lib Dem MP who isn't even prepared to put his own career on the line by standing up to a bunch of smooth-faced ex-public schoolboys and securocrats would have the guts to choose which side he was on if he was ever in real danger, let alone fire a rocket at heavily-armed opponents.

Never mind hypothetical direct action in the Middle East, David Ward. The big question is - if you were a a Lib Dem MP - which you apparently are, by the way - would you dare to stand up to David Cameron (don't be scared of him, if you do say 'no', he can't order a drone strike or send tanks into your constituency)? Can you say 'Ich bin ein liberal' whilst propping up a regressive Tory government? Your party must make up its mind - which side is it on?

Now put that toy rocket launcher down and let's see a bit of backbone closer to home.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Anglican Babylon

The Babylonians were remarkable observers and documentalists of human illness and behavior. However, their knowledge of anatomy was limited and superficial. Some diseases were thought to have a physical basis, such as worms, snake bites and trauma. Much else was the result of evil forces that required driving out… many, perhaps most diseases required the attention of a priest or exorcist, known as an asipu, to drive out evil demons or spirits.
Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon Edward H Reynolds and James V Kinnier Wilson, via Nerurosceptic.

It's easy for sceptics to dismiss such three thousand year old heathen superstitions  as mere "failed science", but today's deeply held beliefs represent an altogether different and more sophisticated order of metaphysics, don't they? Take the Church of England - moderate, tolerant, theologically sophisticated, inclusive and definitely not at all superstitious:
Deliverance Ministry seeks to make real to those who feel possessed, oppressed or afraid, the overcoming of evil by our Saviour Jesus Christ, so that his living presence may bring peace.

The Christian Deliverance Study Group is used by the Bishops of the Church of England to help with training for Advisers in Deliverance Ministry in each Diocese. It does not provide ministry directly to those who are troubled by paranormal experiences.
From The Christian Deliverance Study Group's website. Among the handy resources on the site is a tab entitled 'What's troubling you?,' from which you can navigate a drop-down menu and select from 'Poltergeists,' 'Ghosts and Haunting,' 'Abuse,'* or 'Curses,' depending on the nature of your supernatural affliction.

The priestly org chart looks a bit different these days and Jesus has ousted Tammuz as the most popular brand of life-death-rebirth deity, but tweak these minor details and the central content of the The Christian Deliverance Study Group website wouldn't look out of place incised in cuneiform script on a bronze-age clay tablet.

From where I'm standing, the difference in status between a defunct religion that nobody believes in any more and one that still has "relevance" and living adherents** looks precisely as arbitrary as the status ranking of superstition and religion, as summed up by Deborah Hyde:
You can get a degree in theology, but you can't get a degree in repelling vampires. There's undoubtedly a pervasive sense, even now, that religion is a superior class of metaphysics...
... So personally, I've always thought the difference between religion and superstition was not so much degrees of nonsense, but politics.

*Which would be quite a reasonable thing to investigate, were it not for the implied "Satanic" prefix that becomes apparent when you click the 'Abuse' link:
The activities of some groups may involve hypnotism, drugs, psychological pressure, blackmail or other inducements which undermine your free will. Satanic groups, new religious movements and cults are commonly accused of such abuse. At its most extreme this may include paedophilia, depraved sexual rituals and sacrifice. Evidence of such activity is extremely hard to prove.
**Although the C of E doesn't look that many generations away from itself being one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

King Cossack

Cossack Brigade, 1909

Astrakhan hats, swords, riding boots, long flowing coats decorated with epaulets and sashes, topped off with an impressive sprinkling of military decorations and flamboyant facial hair. Pretty much standard kit for the Czar's paramilitary heavies in Imperial Russia. From Doctor Zhivago to Fiddler on the Roof to the thuggish antics of Putin's boot boys, you think cossack and you think Russia.

Except that the doomed royal house that these particular guys served wasn't the Romanovs, but the Qajar dynasty of the Sublime State of Persia:
Loyal, disciplined, and well trained, the most effective government unit was the 8,000-man Persian Cossack Brigade. Created in 1879 and commanded by Russian officers until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, after which its command passed into Iranian hands, the brigade represented the core of the new Iranian armed forces.
I hadn't heard of the Persian Cossack Brigade until the other day when I came across a reference to Reza Shah Pahlavi, (born Reza Khan), founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and father of the last Shah of Iran, having been a former cossack, which sounded a bit weird to me. After looking it up, I discovered that the cossack thing dates back to the days of the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires were trying to incorporate the unabsorbed bits of the Middle East into their respective spheres of influence. As per Wikipedia:
At the time of the Persian Cossack Brigade's formation the Shah’s royal cavalry was described as having no training or discipline. The Qajar state at this point was very weak, lacking any professional military forces. In wars against the British the royal cavalry had been defeated, and had even seen much difficulties against Turcoman nomads. The Tsar Alexander II approved Russian military advisors travelling to Persia to fulfill the Shah’s request. The brigade was then formed in 1879 by Lieutenant-Colonel Domantovich, a Russian officer.
So, although the Shah's cossacks sound as archaic as the Varangian Guard or the Mamelukes, they belong firmly to the age of modern nation states interacting with weak or failing states - a form of power projection that's not so very different from a contemporary Great Power trying to create and beef up an Afghan National Army around a cadre of US/NATO military advisers. And the Persian Brigade of Cossacks were, in that qualified sense, the nucleus of an actual army. Despite conforming to Central Casting's idea of what well-dressed cossacks should look like, they weren't "real" cossacks:
In spite of its name the Brigade was never a genuine Cossack force. Neither did it have the status of a guard unit. Late nineteenth century photographs show that Russian style uniforms were worn, in contrast to the indigenous dress of other Persian forces at the time. The rank and file of the Brigade were always Caucasian Muhajir and Persian but until 1917 its commanders were Russian officers who were also employed in the Russian army, such as Vladimir Liakhov.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the British took over the Cossack Brigade, got rid of its Russian officers and installed British and Persian ones.* This is where Reza Khan comes in, as the the Cossack Brigade's last commanding officer and the only Persian commander in its history.

With the end of the First World War, the British Empire found itself in a new round of the Great Game, this time contending with the Red Army to draw Persia into its sphere of influence. The Qajar dynasty lost effective control of the country to the Soviets, until the Great Bear's grip was ironically broken by Reza Khan and his newly Anglicised/Persicised cossacks, who rode into Tehran and pulled off a coup d'├ętat in 1921 (turns out that unanticipated blowback from training up uncontrollable paramilitary proxy forces isn't such a new problem after all). This is where things also got a bit more Mameluke-like, with an elite military force seizing power.

By 1925 Khan had become powerful enough to push the parliament into deposing and exiling the last Qajar Shah, and to get himself proclaimed the new Shah of Persia (the name was officially changed to Iran in 1935).

Everything went swimmingly, from the British point of view, until 1941 when the British and their new Soviet allies, fearful that the oil-rich, officially neutral, Imperial State of Iran might side with, or capitulate to, the Axis, invaded and deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former cossack, in favour of his 21 year old Westernised, Swiss boarding school-educated, son, the ill-fated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

*Shortly after the Brits had set up their own proxy force, the South Persia Rifles, commanded by the splendidly-named Brigadier-General Percy Molesworth-Sykes.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Semi-disposable self-assembly schools

One last piece of Gove-kicking, then I'll be done:
...we looked to social democratic Sweden for reform. Fifteen years ago the Swedes decided to challenge declining standards by breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold over educational provision and welcome private providers into the state system.
Former education secretary (boy, did I enjoy writing that 'former') Michael Gove, writing in the Indy in 2008

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that these reforms were a long way from delivering an Ikea-style Swedish success story:
After Sweden's students tumbled in the latest Pisa rankings, a new review suggests that due to a rigorous schedule of testing elsewhere, the students were too tired to care.
The Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS) asked teachers in OECD countries about their views on their jobs.
Sweden landed at the very bottom when it came to rating a career in teaching. Only France and Slovakia had worse results. Only one in twenty Swedish teachers thinks that their profession is appreciated in Sweden.
The average for OECD nations was 31 percent, and the highs were found in Malaysia and Sweden's neighbour Finland, where 59 percent of respondents said their job was highly valued.
The majority of Swedish high-school students can't work out simple sums, researchers have warned after grading a math skill test taken by 1,500 pupils in Sweden. They were stumped that teachers had not raised the alarm.
Some people have suggested that people who don't like Michael Gove's reforms are suffering from an irrational 'Goveophobia.' Personally, I don't think I'm being irrational in rejecting his obsession with competition and rankings, especially when Sweden, his model for a competition and ranking-obsessed system seems to be losing the international "competition" for educational excellence and to be tumbling down the international rankings that he values so highly.

Whereas neighbouring Finland, a country that's doing more or less the opposite of everything Michael Gove would like to see in education, has fared consistently better* (Finland has a publicly funded, comprehensive school system with no league tables, no artificial market and phony "choice", no constant testing and streaming, no grammar schools or academies, almost no private schools and the kids are taught by teachers who must have a master’s degree and who belong to strong trade unions). Perhaps the happy Finns could be even more "competitive" if they adopted the Chinese 9-hour-test-drill-and-kill-suicide model, so I suppose it's a small mercy that Gove got all starry-eyed about Sweden rather than China. Let's just hope that his successor, Nicky Morgan, hasn't been taking her educational inspiration from The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

*It may have dropped a few PISA points, from its position at the very top of the table in recent years, but Finland still seems to be doing way better than Sweden.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The evil that men do

So, farewell then, Michael Gove, education secretary and master of paradox. But it's way too early to hang up the bunting, with his undead legacy still blindly rampaging round the nation's schools:
...Gove's unhealthy idea that you don't need to be trained in how children learn in order to teach. It assumes that anyone with a vast pile of money must know best, about anything. Gove is was almost as pathetically starry-eyed about the ultra-rich as Tony Blair.

And what happens when the millionaires' schools fail? When there's no longer any local organisation to pick up the pieces, then the education secretary, Gove Morgan, must do it. Schools haven't been privatised; they've been nationalised, with Gove Morgan as the ultimate court of appeal and provider of most of the money for schools in every corner of the country...
The Graun

Yep, that's your academies 'driving success through autonomy.' Autonomous from oversight, autonomous from responsibility, yet still firmly clamped to the State's teats and sucking away like a bunch of starving piglets. A fittingly paradoxical legacy from a man dedicated to the idea of imposing autonomy from the centre.