Tag: Commentary


As it should be well known by now, I accept the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Still, being a Conspiracy Theory Theorist I do sometimes read things in a conspiracy-seeking way (by way of an intellectual exercise) and this piece by Massimo Pigliucci is just dandy.

Pigliucci, a philosopher and biologist, is attending a discussion forum at the Konrad Lorenz Institute and, apparently, he has been ‘found out’ by Creationists and IDers, who think that this is some scientific cabal seeking to hide the truth of our origins and plan new evils in the name of Darwinism. Pigliucci article is an explanation of what is really happening at the discussion, but reading it, it just sounds a little… planned. Now, I know how these discussion groups work and Pigliucci’s description is kosher, but if I were a Conspiracy Theorist, then I’d say he was trying to hide his devious and malacious ways in the truth. Behold:

Articles and commentaries on the web have also made much of the fact that the meeting is “private,” meaning that the public and journalists are not invited. This is completely normal for small science workshops all over the world[.]

But why, the Conspiracy Theorist will ask, if you’ve got nothing to hide.

In the 1930s and ‘40s it became clear that one had to integrate the original Darwinism with the new disciplines of Mendelian and statistical genetics. Such integration occurred through a series of meetings where scientists discussed the status of evolutionary theory, and through the publication of a number of books by people like Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, George Gaylor Simpson, George Ledyard Stebbins and others.

Note, the Conspiracy Theorist will say, how he’s not talking about how the science drove them to this but that it was some kind of imperative. The only imperative that could drive such an agenda is one designed to hide the truth and foster atheism in our schools (or something like that).

A commonly believed story about the Moon Landing is that NASA doesn’t seek to debunk claims that it was faked because all it does is give airtime to people who then go ‘If they’re trying to deny it, then there must be something to it.’ Now, this might be an urban legend (I have read something that suggests NASA has an educational fund for exactly this task) but the moral seems plausible; denials only make people question things more. It might well be an example of a heuristic gone bad; if something you believe in is called into question you probably should try to work out why. However, if it is a deeply held belief, then perhaps you won’t seek to question your own reasoning but rather why someone would want to deny the ‘truth.’

Thus, Conspiracy Theories are sometimes born.

Now, of course, I don’t think there’s anything conspiratorial going on here at all (with Pigliucci or NASA), but if you were to think there was Pigliucci’s article wouldn’t dissuade of it. Still, I liked this bit:

This is completely normal for small science workshops all over the world, and I was genuinely puzzled by the charge until I realized (it took me a while) that a sense of conspiracy increases the likelihood that people will read journalistic internet articles and ID sympathetic blogs. You’ve got to sell the product, even at the cost of, shall we say, bending, the reality.

So very true.

Correlation does not equal causation, gentlemen!

Nothing seems to excite me more than tales of Conspiracy in Aotearoa. Thus when Peter Cresswell, an Objectivist and Libertarianz linked to an article by Trevor Loudon and Bernard Moran about the Soviet plot to make New Zealand nuclear-free I was in conspiratorial heaven.

(Read the article, then my critique.)

Moran and Loudon think that their article answers the following question:

A key question is: to what extent did those people on the Labour Party’s national executive, who played a leading role in taking NZ out of ANZUS, understand that they were serving the strategic interests of a hostile foreign power?

(Where that hostile foreign power was the Soviet Union, by the way.)

But it does not. The article insinuates but provides no real reason to accept their contention that (damned) Communism caused New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand in 1984. Their argument relies on two key witnesses. Dr. Bassett, former minister under the 1984 Lange government and one Mr. John Van de Ven (who Cresswell calls an SIS agent, although Loudon and Moran only allege that he worked for SIS, which is a completely different situation). Bassett is alive and well, selling his account of the 1984 revolution; Van de Ven, the Soviet connection, is dead. Bassett is a source we can test; Van de Ven, who had private correspondence with the authors of the article, is not. Two strands of argument, two rather different stories, two rather different testing mechanisms for the individual arguments strands of reasoning.

The article tries to tie two events in the 80s; the growth of the Socialist Unity Party (the SUP) and the factionalisation of the Labour Party under David Lange. Bassett is the Labour Party connection; Van de Ven is the SUP ‘infiltrator.’ Van de Ven is the most interesting character in the story, in part because of the delightfully right-wing bias the authors show. Van de Ven is a unionist, but only because he was trying to subvert the system from within. He led a strike, but it was a rare case (so it seems) of a legitimate grievance with an employer. He meets up with Communists in Soviet Russia, including Gennady Yannaev, one of the plotters of the 1991 coup that overthrew Mikhail Gorbachev, but he makes friends with ‘good’ communists. The anti-socialist grievances of the authors are felt at every turn.

Van de Ven’s story is fascinating and at no point do the authors provide any independent substantiation of it. Whereas with Bassett’s tale of factionalisation in the Labour Party story they pull out supporting references and citations we are expected to take the authors’ word(s) that Van de Ven is a trustworthy source. This is problematic for several reasons.

On one hand the Van de Ven’s story is rather… well, exotic, Possibly farfetched. Not exactly plausible. Thus the burden of proof is on the authors (given that Van de Ven is dead) to give us reason to trust their reportage of it.

It’s not a task they succeed at. The plot itself is very post facto; it was meant to bring about the end of ANZUS and for the Labour Government to steer nuclear-free legislation through Parliament. A remarkable set of goals, especially given that the then government wasn’t exactly American-phobic. The supporting evidence, as it is, are stories about the SUP from a former KGB agent and the like, but nothing to support the assertions of Van de Ven’s story about his trip to Russia, his training and the like. Now, maybe he did go and maybe the authors have supporting evidence for his claims, but they don’t do anything to prove it and it’s a notable lapse in the methodology of their reportage.

Indeed, because we don’t know how trustworthy Van de Ven is (for example, was he really approached by the SIS, did he really seek to subvert the SUP or was he alienated by it at some later stage, causing him to create a vendetta story?) we have to trust the authors. Now, I don’t now them from Maui so I have a sort of general trust in them because, well, we generally take reportage to be a reliable testimonial process, but the plausibility of Van de Ven’s story is low, so that acts as a potential defeater claim to Loudon and Moran’s reliability; if the story is implausible then it takes extraordinary wrk on the part of the transmitters to compensate for that. Do Loudon and Moran do that?

No. Part of the problem with the Van de Ven story is that the authors are just a bit sloppy in their reportage. For example, they allege that Oleg Gordievsky, a double-agent, claims that the New Zealand and Australian communists were being run by International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, yet the two quotes they use:

“I know the situation in New Zealand very well; only 500 members of the Socialist Unity Party, but they are invaluable because each was ready to do something. It was like the KGB had 500 agents in the country.”

He added: “Plus some of them penetrated the trade unions, and then they penetrated the left wing of the NZ Labour Party.”

merely allege that the SUP, a Socialist Party, was involved with other Socialist organisations like the Unions and the Labour Party. Hardly shocking stuff. Maybe Gordievsky does allege it elsewhere in the cited material, but not here. They then run with their allegation to claim:

Understandably, the SUP took advantage of this preferential system, so that through the mid to late 1980s the majority of Labour Party senior officials were SUP sympathisers or secret members.

but provide no support. Who are these figures? And what kind of claim is this? It’s certainly unfalsifiable. Anyone who showed an interest in the Soviets can be claimed to be sympathetic; anyone who didn’t, well, they were a secret member of the SUP.

(There’s a further issue here in that Loudon and Moran seem to think that the SUP were powerful and influential when that is highly contentious and up for debate; this seems to be a classic case of deciding that all one’s political opponents are equally dangerous.)

Unfalsifiable claims such as these do not mark out exemplary journalism; anyone, according to Loudon and Moran’s allegation, could be a SUP sympathesiser or member. Lange, Phil Goff, Magaret Wilson, Mike Moore… Maybe they were. But where is the evidence to support such a claim? Well, that’s the problem, anything will count as evidence according to their allegation, and that simply won’t do.

So, the Van de Ven story is ‘not good.’ Implausible even. But it isn’t the only prong in the story. We have Dr. Bassett and the Labour Party. Even if the SUP story won’t fly, that doesn’t mean Loudon and Moran have completely failed. If the Bassett story works out then maybe Communism’s ‘malign’ influence on New Zealand’s body politic can be still be proven.

Well, it would if it connected with the Soviets at all. Instead, Moran and Loudon wax lyrical on the so-called Peace Movement, imputing guilt by association whilst never actually accusing anyone. We’ve been told about the SUP being evil Soviets, and the SUP were socialists. Now we get a story about some other socialists. Of course (it would seem from their implicit inference), all socialists are the same, thus, ipso facto, quad erat demonstratum or something similar, the socialists of part two are the same evil socialists of part one and thus Communism, Communism, Communism!

Moran and Loudon give a detailed story about how Lange was pressed into the anti-nuclear stance by factionalisation in the Labour Party. It seems like a god story; I’ll even grant that it is, initially, plausible (even though, on reflection, it falls down; no mention of Marilyn Waring, a National Party member whose ‘defection’ on the nuclear-free issue precipitated the 1984 election and, of course, the curious and awkward fact that it was American policy that really lead to the cessation of American naval ships visiting New Zealand. Had the State Department confirmed to the New Zealand Government that the USS Buchanan was not carrying nuclear weapons, then it would have been able to visit. But these are awkward facts that would get in the way of an otherwise ‘good’ story). But, and this is important, even if the story Loudon and Moran tell about the events of 1984 is plausible, it does not dovetail into the SUP and John Van de Ven story, even if they sincerely think it does. They conclude the article with:

The Cold War is now a distant memory, but in the 1980s the Soviet Union was still engaged in a relentless struggle to gain hegemony over the West. The source of the strategic initiative to remove New Zealand from ANZUS has been revealed as none other than the International Department of the CPSU.

Now, the Van de Ven story alleges that the CPSU was interested in destabilising New Zealand’s relationship with the USA. The Bassett story… I’m not sure what role it plays outside of mere insinuation.

What a lot of this boils down to is subjective plausibility. Loudon and Moran have written an article whose conclusion is only supported by its premisses if you already accept the conclusion to be true. Nothing they have written shows a definite link between the activities of the SUP and the Labour Party, between the Soviets and the SUP and a plan by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to make New Zealand take an anti-nuclear stance in 1984. Even the vaguest hint of such a plot is highly conjectural, relying on disparate accounts and a certain amount of winking and nudging on the part of the authors. It is mere conspiracy theorising of the worst sort, the same kind of activity that 9/11 Truthers engage in, similar to the rantings of people who claim there is a New World Order seeking to dominate us all.

Robin Ramsay, editor of the UK political magazine ‘Lobster’ recently noted that when it comes to reporting political conspiracies the author(s) must go to extraordinary efforts to prove their case because such a charge is a serious one. Loudon and Moran do not live up to this challenge.

Ian Wishart would be proud.

Update: Ian Wishart must be proud. Parts of the Loudon and Moran article are going into ‘Investigate Magazine.’

Fisking Fisk’s fiskers

So, the world (well, bits of it) are all in a tizzy because Robert Fisk believes that 9/11 was an inside job.People believe silly things all the time. In this case, however, it seems people are believing silly things about Fisk.Sure, Fisk has said a number of things which we might questionable, objectionable or just ridiculous, but he actually said those things. Fisk has not come out and denied the official story of September 11th, 2001. He has not said ‘Al Qaeda did not do it; the American Government did!’ He has not said that the weight of evidence in favour of the official explanation of 9/11 is bunk. He is simply curious as to some of the more puzzling aspects of the official story. What he is suggesting is that the official story-qua-explanation is incomplete.This is a perfectly acceptable move. Imagine if you were a theoretical physicist investigating the nature of positrons; you might broadly accept the theories in your discipline but also be involved in research that questions the particulars of those theories.You don’t have to agree with everything your side says, you know. Certainly, the pursuit of knowledge, whether it be natural or social, has been largely about accepting the general thrust of a theory whilst debating the intimate details.Fisk is doing something along these lines and it is not just fairly evident but explictly so in the piece he wrote. This is what Fisk actually says:

Usually, I have tried to tell the “truth”; that while there are unanswered questions about 9/11, I am the Middle East correspondent of The Independent, not the conspiracy correspondent; that I have quite enough real plots on my hands in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Gulf, etc, to worry about imaginary ones in Manhattan. My final argument – a clincher, in my view – is that the Bush administration has screwed up everything – militarily, politically diplomatically – it has tried to do in the Middle East; so how on earth could it successfully bring off the international crimes against humanity in the United States on 11 September 2001?

and, most importantly, these, among others of a similar ilk, are the questions he raises:

But – here we go. I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11. … I am talking about scientific issues. If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time? (They collapsed in 8.1 and 10 seconds.) What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it? The American National Institute of Standards and Technology was instructed to analyse the cause of the destruction of all three buildings. They have not yet reported on WTC 7. Two prominent American professors of mechanical engineering – very definitely not in the “raver” bracket – are now legally challenging the terms of reference of this final report on the grounds that it could be “fraudulent or deceptive”.

Now, it is true that a lot of the things Fisk finds suspect already have quite plausible answers; he is behind the ball, so to speak, on a fair number of 9/11 issues and seems to see open questions where others have provided very good answers, but still, these were legitimate questions that the official story did not, initially, take account of, and, as is obvious, Fisk isn’t doubting the official story wholesale but asking why it doesn’t/didn’t account for a number of anomalies.Some of the criticisms Fisk seems to be getting on this issue simply smell of a beat-up job; “here’s a(nother) left-wing commentator who is obviously a loony.” Some of it stinks of people simply not bothering to read the article. None of it is justified. Attack Fisk for what he says, not for what you think he might have said.Or, in some cases, what you wished he had said.

You will become like us

So, emotive language is now apparently something we should not be using when defending Science, Philosophy, proper Theology and so forth. Or, at least, this is what the people at ‘The Briefing Room’ seem to think. In this post, on Atheism, Dawkins is criticised for being emotive and all the atheistic commentators seem to have been told to come back when their emotional laden statements have been tempered with Christian righteousness.Now, I am neither a fan of Dawkin’s take on religion and nor am I entirely sure that atheism doesn’t, in some way, count as a religion. On the latter point I’ll just gesture at a previous post and I’ll also add that even if you don’t think atheism is a religion you have to admit that some atheists treat it as such (I have met as many irrational atheists as I have met irrational Christians, and I spent a very long time in Roman Catholicism, which is saying something). As for Dawkin’s; well, the latest e-Skeptic had a great article that somewhat supports part of why I think Dawkin’s is utterly and incredibly wrong in ‘The God Delusion.’ Basically, Dawkin’s view that group selection is the wrong way to talk about evolution is out-dated; once we allow that natural selection affects both genes and populations (dependent on context) then we can tell evolutionary stories about why religions might well be adaptive strategies (and thus it may well be that there is a god illusion but it isn’t proper to refer to it as a delusion[1]).Still, irregardless[2] of all of that, the people at ‘The Briefing Room’ have entirely the wrong end of the stick. Scientists are allowed to be emotional in their language use; it may well be a bad move in an academic paper to go all poetic or to show a certain degree of anger about a bad view being entrenched, but in a book or article, for lay public consumption, emotional, even flowery language is more than just okay; it is bloody necessary![3] Scientists, whether natural or social, need to engage the public, and as long as they back up everything they say with reason and evidence a little anger or joy is not misplaced. The commentator on the ‘Atheism’ thread at ‘The Briefing Room’ irrationally dismisses ‘The God Delusion’ for containing emotional language, admitting that he simply skimmed the book. Had he actually read it he would have found that a) Dawkin’s backs up his emotion with reason and b) once those reasons are made clear it is fairly easy to show that Dawkin’s really has no idea what he is talking about. He has taken a form of Christianity, generalised it not just to all Christianity but all religious belief, and then performed a Strawman. No wonder the rest of the academic community (with a few unusual exceptions) has taken little time to critique him; he just isn’t engaging with the literature on religion as it currently stands.The moral to this story is simple. So simple I’m not even going to assert it.–1. i.e. The role of god might well be fictional but useful (thus, illusionary), rather than fictional and disadvantageous (thus, delusional).2. ‘Irregardless’ means the same thing as ‘regardless’ and is now thought to be an unnecessary addition to your everyday lexicon. I disgree; irregardless of ‘irregardless’ being unnecessary I shall continue to use it. Indeed, I plan to resurrect it; use it in your blog post today! 3. I usually avoid exclamation marks like the plague, but I deemed that one necessary.    

The Old Oil Chestnut

I seem to be delivering content to this blog at the moment and I have the horrible feeling that you (on meagre readership) might think this to be a) a good thing and b) a sign of further good things to come. I had hoped to dissuade you of this today with a filler post followed by a fortnight of silence but, as it happens, I have more content which needs promulgation. In fact, the next post (dateline: Thursday) was meant to be this one, but the next post is ‘timeless’ whilst today’s diatribe is fixed into place by the vagrancies of another’s blog.Anyway, on with the show.Aardvark Daily seems to have joined, albeit tentatively, the Power Corporates Conspiracy. It’s a popular Conspiracy Theory and it has a certain plausibility (just like the claim that the Milk Board runs New Zealand and that the reason why there is so much sugar in British food is that… Well, I think that’s just northern stupidity, really). Some of our largest corporations have a lot invested in their continued existence and some of our politicians recognise that fact and appreciate the monies that come from helping out.Does that mean that such companies will actively seek to suppress a technological revolution in power generation? Maybe, maybe not. It is true that a lot of large corporates engage in activities we consider harmful to the public good (and, like a lot of the population, I don’t think that the free market (whatever that is) will ultimately provide what is best for everyone; I think this assumotion is one of the root causes for conspiracy hypothesising in cases like these); look at Microsoft and the famous antitrust actions against it. Still, that doesn’t mean such companies deliberate set out to cause harm to consumers. Not all things that look like Conspiracies are conspiratorial activities. Sometimes they are just features (and you can read ‘features’ as ambiguously as you like in this case) of the system.Noam Chomsky, philosopher of language and of politics, runs a line of critique called Institutional Analysis (which I am sure I have mentioned before) in which he argues that some conspiratorial activity is actually just the result of, for want of a better term, normal business practice. Take Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is a supporter of a fairly strong extreme-right view and his news corporation certainly treats the Republican Party fair more nicely than the Democrats. Still, has Murdoch, at any point, ever told his news editors and journalists to go soft on Republicans? Possibly not. Instead what you might have is a situation where a cub reporter, knowing that his ultimate boss is a Republican, portrays Republics favourably because they assume that is what Murdoch wants. If a significant number of people in the organisation think that way then you get a noticeable bias towards the Republicans without there ever having been explicit instruction to act in that way.I am fairly sympathetic to this account of conspiratorial-like activity, although I think it is very open to abuse. For example; one of Microsoft’s strategies in the antitrust case was to argue that the company hadn’t deliberately set out to lock out third-party access to the Window’s API set but rather that it was simply symptomatic of the culture at Microsoft that third-party vendors found getting the needed information difficult. If I were a board member I’d be using the exact same excuse to hide my conspiratorial behaviour.So, are Power Companies suppressing clean, green energy? Well, possibly. Is it a Conspiracy? Well, once again, possibly. Or maybe it isn’t. That’s the wonderful thing about Conspiracy Theories. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t and most of the time we only find out the truth of the matter well after the fact.Also. a tip. Energy saving bulbs are a good idea, except in rooms where the light is only on for a short amount of time. In those situations, like bathrooms, the pallid illumination they provide before they really get incandescent is of no use whatsoever to me when I need to go and have a piss.Just saying.

Brief Political Commentary

The recent debate in New Zealand in re legalised child abuse (sucks to be you if you think the repeal of Section 59 was about anything else) has ended with a cross-party compromise. Seeing that I’m currently very interested in Social Epistemology (and that one of the ways you can characterise the constitution of a group is whether they share the same beliefs) it fascinates me that the Labourites and the Nationalites are making out that their party leader won and that the other has made a strategic mistake. If you support National, then John Key has outsmarted Helen Clarke by being able to be all Prime Ministerial. If you support Labour then Helen Clarke has outsmarted John Key by making him agree to a compromise of the Labour Party’s invention. If you belong to a minor party then both Helen Clarke and John Keys have betrayed the electorate and will suffer at the next election. In all cases it seems that people are selecting their beliefs based upon the domain of interest that is ‘Which party do I prefer most?’ Now, of course, this is exactly how politics works, but even so I still find it most amusing.

Still, yay for the repeal.

PS. I know; two posts in one day? What will I do next.