He never expressed doubt in anything, I think that was his – one of his strengths. He never expressed doubt. Once he’d made his mind up that something was right it was right.
- General Pinochet’s personal driver, commenting on their private conversations about politics and his own admiration for the late dictator.
I was kidding about the source. It was Lady Thatcher’s former driver Denis Oliver, commenting about her when interviewed by the BBC this morning (only gender was changed in the quote). Why do people so often take complete absence of doubt to be a strength in a leader, even when they disagree with that leader’s views? Can they be persuaded otherwise?
In the light of the unfolding horsemeat scandal, it was only a matter of time before some equine entrails were uncovered in an Ikea meatball. This is a shame on many levels, not least for the poor pigs, cows, and horses whose flesh will now end up as landfill. I personally am quite partial to an Ikea meatball, would not object on the mere grounds that it contained horsemeat (I think I would have been hard pressed to identify the ingredients anyway prior to the scandal), and recently enjoyed an Ikea meatball dinner in Budapest with a colleague from the Uehiro Centre, not a million miles from where the offending meatball was uncloaked. But for those who consider eating Ikea meatballs intrinsically good, but eating horsemeat intrinsically bad, how could they be advised?
Vice-President Biden is a Roman Catholic. In the recent debate with Paul Ryan he was asked his view of abortion and he said
I accept my church’s position on abortion…. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews…I just refuse to impose that on others.
So he’s saying that abortion is murder and while he’s certainly not going to be murdering any babies that he’s carrying he’s cool with you murdering yours. Or am I being unfair? Continue reading
When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.
How should a rational person react to this news?
In general, if you know someone to be a danger to others you have a duty to do something about it. Exactly what you are obliged to do depends on the person, the situation and you. At the very least you ought to warn others.
In general, and apart from such basic duties as not to interfere with others (more pompously, to respect their autonomy), to keep your promises to them, not to harm them and not to burden them, your strongest duties are those you take on voluntarily, such as those you acquire by taking up a profession.
The professions hold themselves out to us as entitled to special privileges because of their special knowledge. We trust them, we rely on them, we place ourselves in their hands for specific purposes, because when paid for their work they promise to look after our interest before their own. Part of that promise is a special duty to hold members of the profession accountable to professional standards and to exclude persons who fail those standards.
So members of the medical profession have both a very strong duty and a special duty to protect us from dangerous doctors. A book has come out showing that doctors are grossly— indeed, grotesquely —derelict in this duty. Continue reading
The gene for internet addiction has been found! Well, actually it turns out that 27% of internet addicts have the genetic variant, compared to 17% of non-addicts. The Encode project has overturned the theory of ‘junk DNA‘! Well, actually we already knew that that DNA was doing things long before, and the definition of ‘function’ used is iffy. Alzheimer’s disease is a new ‘type 3 diabetes‘! Except that no diabetes researchers believe it. Sensationalist reporting of science is everywhere, distorting public understanding of what science has discovered and its relative importance. If media ought to try to give a full picture of the situation, they seem to be failing.
But before we start blaming science journalists, maybe we should look sharply at the scientists. A new study shows that 47% of press releases about controlled trials contained spin, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment. This carried over to subsequent news stories, often copying the original spin. Maybe we could try blaming university press officers, but the study found spin in 41% of the abstracts of the papers too, typically overestimating the benefit of the intervention or downplaying risks. The only way of actually finding out the real story is to read the content of the paper, something requiring a bit of skill – and quite often paying for access.
Who to blame, and what to do about it?
The British government is about to introduce compulsory lie detector tests for sex offenders released on parole. The British police want to use lie detectors in the detection of crime. Is this the right thing to do?
The answer to that question depends on a complex set of duties. Obviously it is highly desirable to prevent people on parole committing crimes. Equally obviously it is highly desirable to catch criminals (only when the laws are just, of course). For this reason we are tempted to latch onto anything that promises improvements. The government and the pilot study they are basing their proposal on are promising us improvements by using lie detectors. Others elsewhere have considered whether lie detectors do in fact offer better outcomes . Even if lie detectors do offer better outcomes, which they might do whether or not they are good at detecting lies, that still wouldn’t make it right to use them.
A highly significant duty that bears on the question is the epistemic duty borne by the law and by the police, the epistemic duty to know the truth of guilt and innocence. Here I am concerned only with that duty. I do not consider other duties, such as protection from harm, that might be served by deterrent effects achieved independently of knowing the truth. Continue reading
The North Carolina senate tried to pass a bill in June banning state agency researchers from using exponential extrapolations in predictions of sea level, requiring them to just using linear extrapolations. After being generally laughed at, the legislators settled for a compromise: state agencies were forbidden to base any laws or plans on exponential extrapolations for the next three to four years. Now a new report shows that sea levels are rising faster near North Carolina than anywhere else on Earth.
Honesty is a virtue. The strange thing about honesty is that we do not seem to see even the simplest aspect, telling the truth when it is owed, as a duty. People who would be horrified at hurting anyone will trim, twist, exaggerate and lie at the drop of a hat, especially when it advances their ideological agenda, and will not feel they have done much wrong at all. Worse, they will anathematise those who utter inconvenient truth and feel highly righteous in doing so.
Science can be pure enquiry but the questions it seeks to answer are often those with significant practical import. The reason we subsidise science is because of the benefits it promises. Getting the benefits depends on scientists finding out and telling us the truth. From this point of view, then, honesty is a prime virtue of science and to be honest is a stringent duty owed to us all by scientists. It is unclear to what extent scientists feel properly bound by this duty. Continue reading
You will no doubt recall that some time ago I was bewailing the backwardness of Britain when it comes to shutting people up who disagree with me. I think the case in point was in Austria, where the authorities were prosecuting a woman for criticising Islam. Never happens here, alas! Our betters in the European Union have continued to show us the way. More recently we have the prosecution of the Danish historian Lars Hedegaard for claiming that Muslim women are subjected to sexual violence.