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Nick Shackel’s Posts

Honesty and Science

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.Read More »Honesty and Science

Shutting people up

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.

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Just give me the Humbug

We’ve all had fun hating Goldman Sachs again after one of their own sold them out . Mr Smith says that ‘culture was the secret sauce that made [Goldman] great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years’ whereas now Goldman pursues its own interest rather than its clients’ due to a ‘decline in the firm’s moral fibre’…. Hold on. Yes, I know its hard not to burst out laughing.

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The Fragility of Freedom of Speech

It is no doubt naïve of me, but I am shocked that so many people do not believe in the freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech we have no freedom of thought and without freedom of thought we do not have ourselves. There is nothing original in this simple point. It has been a foundation of English liberty for centuries.

Freedom of speech is either the freedom to say things that others find detestable or it is no freedom at all. And this freedom imposes an equally stringent duty. We are all obliged to tolerate the expression of what we find detestable.

153 years ago Mill diagnosed brilliantly the intemperate discussion that has recently been on florid display. “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them….The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interest in seeing justice done them”. Plainly this is exactly what we have just seen.

Where, then,  is the line of toleration?

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On the summary execution of murderous tyrants and the good of a timely accounting.

Despite my dislike of capital punishment I find it hard to object to the summary execution of murderous tyrants such as Gaddafi. A short period of terror followed by a swift ignominious death is much less than they deserve. What they deserve are the torments of hell. Nor is the absence of a trial an injustice done them—what doubt have we of their guilt? If they are a focus for forces intent on reviving their tyranny, and those forces will dissipate or fail without them, killing them may also be a benefit and even a necessity. So if there is anything wrong in their summary execution it must be found elsewhere and must outweigh the risks of keeping them alive. It seems to me there is something to be said on this other side and it is to be found in the good of a timely accounting.

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Evidence on Evidence Based Policy

You were no doubt as surprised as I was when the Blair government announced it was henceforth doing evidence based policy. It was just like when the medical profession said it was going to do evidence based medicine. You mean—they weren’t already? Still, even though the promised reform doesn’t really sweeten the bitter truth, it is a move in the right direction. Or at least, it is a promise to take a move in the right direction. But was the move taken?  When it comes to the, perhaps minor, example of speed cameras, we have clear evidence whether the policy was evidence based. And the evidence says, No!

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Banks: Liberty or Regulation

Gordon Brown has just said that he made a big mistake about financial regulation. His remarks are in line with many politicians on the financial crisis: regulation failed therefore we need more regulation. But do we?

Frideswide Square is a notorious traffic junction in Oxford, and it’s a nightmare. It has about 20 sets of traffic lights and small problems here lead to long tailbacks in many directions, tripling journey times for many otherwise short trips. So you can imagine how awful it was when the traffic lights all broke down recently.

Except it wasn’t.Read More »Banks: Liberty or Regulation

Penzions and Politicians

Aren’t you glad you’ve got a state pension! I know I am. It’s just great to know the government cares about us and will look after us in our old age. Kind of like having parents, only better because it’s even bigger and even stronger, and not selfish like parents are. (Also, more likely to be around at that point.) And it works so well too. You just pay money in and later you get more out. I know this because I can see pensioners getting their money out now. Obviously the money is properly invested and gives an excellent return. So I simply cannot understand why the party poopers are maundering on about dangerous pension liabilities leading to unsustainable government deficits and debts. Don’t they believe what the prime ministers and presidents tell us?

Look, here is what President Obama is saying, and if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about then I just don’t know who does:

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Wikileaks Rights and Wrongs

Would it be a good thing if, far from crushing Wikileaks, governments were required to post their entire correspondence on Wikileaks? In principle, this would appear to be highly desirable. A legitimate ruler over us it might justifiably keep secrets from us—but there is no such thing, neither leviathan nor the general will nor the people. Government is merely a mechanism we employ to protect our rights and resolve certain coordination problems. The government is therefore our agent and agents have no ground for withholding information from principals. The enormous power accumulated by the state should not be wielded in secrecy. Furthermore, when we give up democratic and political romanticism the attractions of openness only increase: we realise that anyone putting themselves forward to have power over us (always for our own good, of course) thereby raises a doubt over whether they should have it, and that politicians are not and never will be especially wise or good and will do what they think is required to hang onto power.

(update: see also my discussion of Wikileaks on Guardian Comment is Free)

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